Mama, you can breastfeed twins
BY GUEST WRITER, GEMMA SHARVELL
The news we were having twins came as a shock, a wonderful and exciting shock but a shock all the same. I tried as much as possible to be prepared practically and mentally for the obvious challenges of having two babies.
But I was not prepared for breastfeeding to be one of the biggest challenges of all.
I was under the rather naive illusion that babies just know how to breastfeed and so I really didn’t anticipate that teaching tiny babies to latch would require so much time, energy, effort and perseverance.
Having multiples is considered a high risk pregnancy and most twins come early - so my hospital bag was packed from 30 weeks. My babies were measuring small, their growth had slowed dramatically from 34 weeks, my baby boy was showing signs of rejecting the placenta and I was leaking protein - but miraculously we made it to 37 weeks.
I felt we'd overcome one of the biggest hurdles.
On doctor's advice and after a lot of careful consideration we opted for a c section and for the most part it was a great experience. But as the babies had low birth weights - 1.9 kg and 2 kg - I was told they would need to go to special care for checks.
But to my relief and mostly due to my insistence, they allowed me a some skin to skin time before they were taken away. I’m not entirely sure how long I lay with my babies on me, but I remember feeling so calm, so relieved, and so full of love. I am so glad that I pushed for it to happen.
I'd read about its many benefits of skin to skin - including how it can encourage milk supply.
And I knew this was especially important after a c section, as surgery can impact how long it takes for your milk to come in. Then as soon as I was physically able I made my way up to the special care to find my babies.
They were so tiny and so skinny, covered in wires and inside a big incubator, wearing a nappy that was half the size of them, it was heart-breaking to see them like that but at the same time it was such a magical moment, knowing that we made those two tiny little humans and that after all this time and worry, they were finally here and they were safe. It was unlike any feeling I have ever felt before .
I was so excited to start breastfeeding.
I remember picking up my baby girl up and snuggling her in towards my chest, she took a look at me and then promptly fell asleep! Never mind I thought, I’ll give my baby boy a try instead.
He did exactly the same thing. At this point I didn’t think too much about it and just spent the time cuddling them and taking them in. In hindsight, this was the start of our long, emotional, but ultimately successful breastfeeding journey.
I knew breastmilk was the best source of nutrients and antibodies for my babies.
Knowing how small and fragile they were it felt even more important to be able to give them this. On reflection I think there was a tiny part of me that felt like I didn’t want to miss out on breastfeeding just because I had two babies to feed.
Throughout my pregnancy I was determined not to let the fact I was having two babies at the same time become a negative or stop us doing anything that we would have done with just one baby.
I felt that because I had twins and because they were small it was even more important for me to be able to give them my milk and for us to connect through. I know there are plenty of other ways to bond but perhaps because I had a c-section, I needed to do something I felt was natural. Or maybe I focused on the breastfeeding connection because I was worried I wouldn't have time to bond with either baby, or that I'd connect with one more than the other. I feared falling into depression as I had read that can happen to twin mums. It could have been all those things, and other worries I can't even remember.
Rightly or wrongly, that is how I felt. Reading this back it does sound a little crazy, but that was how my brain was working - and in a way it was all that coupled with a strong maternal instinct and desire to nurse that just kept driving me forward.
We were all in hospital for a few days and during that time I tried everything I could to get my babies to latch, I consulted with numerous midwives and I saw several different lactation consultants.
But it still wasn’t happening for us.
I remember the nurses kept saying that due to their size they had very little energy to feed and because their mouths are so small they will find it hard to latch. I didn’t want this to be true and for some reason I just didn’t believe it so I kept trying.
As direct feeding wasn’t an option at this stage, I had to express my milk and use a syringe to feed them a tiny bit of milk at a time. We did this for a couple of days before moving on to cup feeding - using a little beaker the size of a shot glass.
It took around 45 minutes to feed each baby around 30 mls of milk.
It was painfully slow and they were so small they just kept falling asleep. On the day we left hospital I remember saying to the doctors desperately: 'but I still can’t breast feed them'. The medical staff seemed sympathetic but as the babies and I were healthy, they had done their job so it was time to go.
When we got home I felt like a failure. I couldn’t understand why I couldn't breastfeed them.
What was wrong with me and what was wrong with my body? These questions just kept whirling around my head. The only way we could feed them was by cup feeding them and I had never heard of anyone having to do this before.
Everyone I knew had breastfed or chosen to bottle feed. I kept reminding myself that they were small and that was why they couldn’t feed themselves yet and I kept hoping that the next feed would be different and that maybe they would feed from me.
Cup feeding two babies was a lengthy, exhausting process that needed a lot of patience.
It took around an hour and then as soon as they had been fed, burped and changed it was time for me to pump, then after I had finished pumping it would be time to feed them again.
This routine went on all day and all night. It was a gruelling cycle and sometimes I look back and wonder how we got through it. Luckily I had an amazing support network, my mum and my husband were incredibly supportive, encouraging and more importantly hands on.
I think one of the best things I did was to seek help and advice from professionals.
I believe knowledge is power and as I had absolutely no knowledge or prior experience with breastfeeding I was desperate for as much help and support as I could get my hands on. I found the most wonderful lactation consultant and she was one of the reasons I kept going in the early days, she was always so positive and reassuring. She showed us an alternative way to feed the babies, called finger feeding or tube feeding, a method that was supposed to speed up the feeding process and would, in theory, help them learn to breastfeed eventually.
Finger feeding is when you use a tiny little feeding tube to act as a straw, you then line it up with your little finger and get the baby to suck your finger and the tube acts as a straw. She said this would help them get used to sucking and help them avoid nipple confusion with the cup or bottle. We knew it wasn’t a long term solution but we saw it as a short term fix until I could breastfeed so we gave it a go.
I almost gave up so many times.
I believed that if they didn’t breastfeed in those early weeks then they would never be able to do it and with each passing day I felt my dream of nursing them was fading away. For weeks I saw several different lactation consultants, googled endlessly, joined various different breastfeeding support groups, always trying to find something that resonated with me and that little bit of inspiration. I discovered many women had gone through the same thing.
I also realised that even if it takes weeks, it is possible, to get your baby to feed directly.
Ultimately, this realisation, gave me strength and determination to carry on. So carry on is what I did, I kept finger feeding and pumping while trying to breastfeed for six long weeks, until one day I finally got my first latch. I still remember it so clearly. I was on sitting on the bed, looking at my baby boy's eyes and thinking, you’re awake, your getting bigger, you can do this, and he did, he finally latched on and I could feel that surge of emotion and oxytocin that we had been striving to get for so long.
After that first latch I was determined to continue.
I knew that they could do it and that there was nothing wrong with me or my body, it was just that it was taking time. Their latches were inconsistent so I was advised to try nipple shields. I'd heard bad things about them but they were a game-changer for us.
The babies found it so much easier to latch on and within a couple of days they were both breastfeeding efficiently. Once they were confident with the shields I removed them and to my delight they were able to nurse directly.
I quickly learnt that I couldn’t sustain feeding one and then the other as it took too long and I would end up feeding all day. So I learnt how to tandem feed. I had lots of help from my wonderful lactation consultant, she helped me find a special twin feeding pillow, taught me how to roll up towels under the pillow so they babies were at the same level. I also had a cushion behind my back and two cocoon baby pillows for each child pre and post nursing. There was so much equipment, I used to call the sofa my “breast feeding station”.
Eventually it became a smooth operation and I was able to feed them myself with little effort.
Being out and about was a little more difficult so I tended to plan my day so that I could feed at home, at my station. Once the babies were around 3 months old, feeding became much easier and much quicker so I was able to feed them one after the other when I was out and it felt amazing. To be able to feed, comfort and soothe both my babies by myself felt incredibly empowering and deeply satisfying and to this day I am so glad I never gave up.
It wasn’t straight forward, but nothing worth having ever is.
It took time, energy, effort and a great deal of patience to work out how to feed two babies at the same time but it was most definitely worth it. Both my babies were exclusively breast fed, my son fed for 8 months before he weaned himself and my daughter decided to wean at 1 year.
I wanted to continue breastfeeding for as long as my babies wanted so I let them lead the way.
Luckily it was a very smooth transition for us and it felt like a gentle and natural end to our breastfeeding journey compared to our not so natural beginning.
Listening to positive stories and surrounding myself with supportive people was key for me. It kept me going and spurred me on and I hope that in some way my story might be able to do the same for someone else .
I truly believe breastfeeding is magical.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Gemma is originally from England but has been living in Hong Kong with her French partner and their 3 year old twins for 8 years. She took a two year career break to spend time with her family, but has recently gone back to being a full time Primary Teacher at an International School.