Two at a Time: A Tale of Breastfeeding Twins
This is Part 1 of a 2-part series about breastfeeding twins. Because there's always two parts to twins! Originally published as a guest post for Sweet Songs Breastfeeding.
Two At A Time
A Tale of Breastfeeding Twins
The first time I got pregnant, in 2005, we were shocked and thrilled to learn we were having identical twins. There were a lot of questions—mostly about where we were going to fit two babies into our one-and-a-half-bedroom apartment and our tiny little Mazda Protégé. One thing that was never a question for me was how they would be fed. I grew up in a family where breastfeeding is the norm. It’s not a big deal, it’s not a thing, it’s just the way we feed babies in our family, and I had breasts, therefore, I would be the one doing the breastfeeding.
Many well-intentioned people were astonished when they mentioned bottles and formula and I said, “Oh, we won’t need that. I’m going to breastfeed.”
“BOTH of them? How will you breastfeed TWO babies?” Well, I do have two breasts, so I imagined probably at the same time. I ran into many of the Booby Traps that moms of multiples face; the most common one being admonished that it was great that I wanted to try, but to have some formula on hand, “just in case.” Finally, out of exasperation, my husband started responding, “So…in the days before formula, I guess mothers of multiples just had to pick which kid lived and which one they left out on the mountain?”
The biggest issue was lack of normalization. Not only was breastfeeding in and of itself held as something vastly unattainable for all but the elite minority of women as though it were some kind of Olympic event, but breastfeeding twins was simply something most people could not comprehend. It just didn’t seem possible. I, however, had a secret weapon. I had support, even before I became pregnant. I had a husband who did not come from a breastfeeding family but who never once wavered in his belief that this was my choice and my body and I could do anything I set my mind to. And I had support from my mother, a seasoned L&D and NICU nurse who breastfed her own two kids and who literally told me my whole life that I could do anything I put my mind to. This is
Breastfeeding Twins Tip #1: Set up your breastfeeding support as soon as you see two heartbeats on the ultrasound.
Things didn’t go exactly as planned, as often happens with twins, and after a rather scary bout of pre-eclampsia, my sons were born via c-section at sunrise on Easter Sunday. I had barely made it to 32 weeks. I saw each of them for about 10 seconds before they were whisked away to the NICU. When I woke up, hours later, there was a hospital-grade breastpump sitting in my room like an accusation. I was still on magnesium sulfate, and not able to stand up, so I was not allowed to go to the NICU to see my babies.
Enter support team! They came with pictures and videos of the babies in the NICU. They brought me their hats to smell and they had me sleep with blankets to put in each isolette so that my babies could smell me. And we all stared at the pump. It wasn’t even plugged in. There were no instructions. And whenever we asked a nurse for help she’d say, “oh, I’ll send in the lactation consultant.” But she never came. Instead, a friend brought me a manual pump later that day and I started pumping out the tiniest drops of colostrum. And all those doubting voices from pregnancy came back. “How will you make enough milk for two babies?” My mother drowned them out and cheered over every drop of colostrum as though I had done something miraculous. My husband set an alarm and woke me up every 3 hours through the night to pump. They labeled and carried every drop of milk from my breasts down to the NICU, which was a 15-minute walk from the postpartum unit. Once my milk came in, they had to keep going back to request more storage containers, because my breasts, evidently, had decided to take those “just in case” warnings as a challenge. By 48 hours postpartum, my sons were only getting my milk. I felt so proud! Of course I could breastfeed twins—I couldn’t even hold them yet, but I could breastfeed!
When the lactation consultant finally did come, the day before I was discharged, she furrowed her brow and scolded me for not using the electric pump. “You will never be able to make enough milk for twins if you don’t learn how to use this pump.” Weakly, I protested that I already was, but she just kept insisting that there was no way to breastfeed twins without a double electric pump until, finally, my husband rose up out of his chair like a bear and physically backed her out of the room.
Breastfeeding Twins Tip #2: Even the experts don’t know everything. You are the expert on your babies, you have known them longer than anyone else in the world. It’s important to ask lots of questions so that you understand all the expert opinions you are offered, then make informed decisions that feel right for your family.
Once we finally convinced the hospital staff that my preemie babies were, in fact, latching on and transferring milk at 33 weeks gestational age (something they had started while they still had feeding tubes) we all came home. And then we all survived.
Here’s the truth about having twins, whether you breastfeed or not: The first 3 months are brutal. The goal is to survive to the next minute. My boys nursed every 2 hours around the clock for weeks on end (normal for newborns, especially normal for preemies). But not the same every 2 hours. So my husband would change a diaper, I’d nurse, he’d burp and put the baby down, and then the other one would wake up. Rinse and repeat. Every hour. For weeks. My mom and my college roommate both told me, “wait till they hit 3 months. Once they hit 3 months it will be better.” I was certain they were lying. I also seriously doubted we would survive that long. Then, suddenly, the first night of their third month of life, something magic happened. They both slept for four hours at a time. My husband and I woke up the next morning and the sun was shining, a rainbow was over our house, birds were singing, there was a faint reprise of Handel’s “Hallelujah” chorus playing somewhere (quietly, so as not to wake the babies), and we fell in love all over again. We no longer hated life, ourselves, or each other. It’s amazing what 4 hours of uninterrupted sleep will do for you.
Breastfeeding Twins Tip #3: If you can survive breastfeeding twins for the first 12 weeks of their lives, you can do ANYTHING.
After that, it actually got progressively easier. Both breastfeeding and simply having twins. As they get older, they get cuter (plus you get to put them in more adorable twin-themed baby clothes in bigger sizes). As they gained enough muscle control to hold their heads up, we were able to breastfeed in different positions, and they got to the point where they preferred to nurse at the same time. Eventually, they achieved mobility, and they would often simultaneously stop playing, then both crawl over to me and climb up—each to his preferred side—and hold hands or play games while they nursed. Traveling was great—we had 2 babies under 2 who could fly for free and no worrying about bottles, cooler packs, or boiling water! Not easy—there is nothing “easy” about having twins (or kids, for that matter)—but pretty wonderful.
Breastfeeding Twins Tip #4: Breastfeeding twins over the age of 3 months is fast, cheap, efficient, and a massive time saver—and gets progressively easier the older they get.
Eventually, as all babies do, my twins weaned. I am proud that I achieved my goal of breastfeeding until they were ready to wean. One day, when they were 19 months old, I sat on the floor and opened my shirt for our customary first-thing-morning-nursing session. They both toddled over, then stopped. They looked at each other, looked at me, and said, “no.” Then they went off to find their toys. That was it. I offered to nurse for several more days, but they were no longer interested. They had decided (evidently together, in one of those freaky-twin-telepathic moments) that they were finished and our breastfeeding journey came to a peaceful closure.
Years later, I found myself once again nursing two babies, when my fourth child was born and my third was 21 months old. Many people were astonished to learn that I was tandem-nursing. “BOTH of them? How are you breastfeeding TWO?” I would just smile and tell them
Breastfeeding Twins Tip #5: Tandem-nursing singleton siblings is much easier than nursing twins!
Amy Barron Smolinski, MA, ALC, CLC is the Executive Director of Mom2Mom Global, a breastfeeding peer support network for military families. She started as a Peer Mentor in Mom2Mom KMC, where she often mentored mothers of twins. A Certified Lactation Counselor and Advanced Lactation Consultant, Amy counsels breastfeeding mothers and babies as a volunteer in her community and at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center. She is an Army wife and a breastfeeding mother.