The defining characteristic of mammals is that females nurse and care for their young; without this, the neonate has no chance to survive. Studies on wild and domestic species show that the neonatal period is the most critical step in the lifetime of a mammal. This review compares three well-studied species (the rabbit, pig and sheep) that differ in their parental strategies and in the problems that neonates have to overcome. As a general trend, mother-young interactions vary according to the maturity of the newborn, and the size of the litter. Neonatal survival relies to a great extent on an environment that is ecologically appropriate for the developmental stage of the neonate, and on optimum interactions with the mother. Adaptive maternal care supposes that the mother provides the basic needs of the neonate: warmth (in pigs and rabbits) or shelter, food, water and immunological protection (via colostrum) and, in some instances, protection from predators and other conspecifics. A major risk facing all neonates, other than the birth process itself, is inadequate colostrum intake owing to delayed suckling or competition with siblings, which leads to starvation, hypothermia or even crushing, as has been observed in pigs.