When parents find out they are expecting a multiple birth, this can cause a wide variety of emotions – shock, love, excitement, worry, and even panic. One of the biggest concerns for many parents is whether they will be able to breastfeed their babies.
The good news is that it is very possible to breastfeed twins or even triplets. There are some difficulties to negotiate, but with expert breastfeeding support these can be overcome.
Before their babies are born, parents should have a positive conversation with health care professionals. Professionals need to be mindful of the language they use. Often parents report that they have been told it will be too difficult or not possible to breastfeed their babies. This is not the case and parents should be encouraged to give breastfeeding a try. There is no harm in being realistic; breastfeeding can be a difficult journey. But having twins is a difficult journey in itself and once breastfeeding is established, mothers generally find it far easier than bottle feeding.
Health care professionals can signpost parents to local breastfeeding support – if possible, an experienced breastfeeding counsellor or International Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC). Good quality online support can be found in the UK via Facebook groups such as Breastfeeding Twins and Triplets UK, and via the Twins Trust.
Going along to a ‘Preparing to Breastfeed’ session will inform parents about the practical elements of breastfeeding and normal newborn behaviour. Some hospitals also offer a specialist twins session. Accessing antenatal education at around 30 weeks’ gestation is a good idea, in case the twins are born prematurely.
Antenatal Colostrum Harvesting
Research shows that from 36 weeks of pregnancy, mothers can begin hand expressing and harvesting colostrum (Forster & al, 2017). This can provide valuable insurance against the babies not being able to feed effectively straight away, or needing a boost to stabilise their blood sugars. If birth has been scheduled for before 37 weeks’ gestation, parents can discuss with their doctor or midwife whether it is appropriate to begin hand expressing before 36 weeks. Colostrum should be frozen in syringes clearly labelled with the date of expression, the mother’s name and her hospital number and taken to the hospital at delivery.
Birth at 36 – 37 weeks
Most twins are born at 36 to 37 weeks’ gestation. This is considered a full-term pregnancy for twins; however, it is important to remember that this is still quite early in terms of the babies’ development. They are more likely to be sleepy, to have short sucking bursts or to be uncoordinated in their suck, swallow, breathe pattern, which is significantly associated with suboptimal breastfeeding. Some will be able to breastfeed exclusively and transfer enough milk; some will not. A skilled breastfeeding assessment should be offered.
The babies may be too sleepy to cue for feeds. If this is the case, parents should be encouraged to feed no later than three hours from the start of the previous feed, thus ensuring a minimum of eight feeds a day. If the babies are not feeding effectively, a feeding plan incorporating time at the breast, pumping and topping up may be necessary. Breast compressions can help the milk flow and encourage more effective milk transfer. It should be stressed that this is a short-term intervention until the babies are feeding more effectively and can move towards exclusive breastfeeding. Support for the mother is essential during this time. As the babies begin to breastfeed more effectively, top-ups can be gradually reduced, then stopped.
If the babies are born early and taken to the neonatal unit, the mother should be supported to hand express as soon as possible after the birth (ideally within 2 hours). Following this, hand expressing should be encouraged at least 8 to 10 times every 24 hours to prime the prolactin receptors and ensure a full milk supply. Once her milk begins to come in, or if large volumes of colostrum are being extracted, the mother should move onto a hospital grade pump. A breast pump can also be used from the day of birth, in addition to hand expressing colostrum, to provide extra breast stimulation.
Every mother wishing to breastfeed should be supported to pump 8 to 10 times in 24 hours. Breast massage before and during the expressing session should also be encouraged, as research shows this can increase milk output (Morton, et al., 2009). Double pumping also results in higher milk volumes.
Kangaroo care should be supported as soon as the babies are stable. Preterm babies become more stable more quickly when held skin to skin. Frequent and extended skin to skin has also been associated with earlier exclusive breastfeeding and higher volumes of milk when expressing (Nyqvyst, 2004).
Rooting has been observed as early as 28 weeks’ gestation in very premature babies, and longer sucking bursts at 32 weeks, so once babies are stable they can be given the opportunity to try the breast. Skilled breastfeeding supporters can assess when the babies are feeding well enough to move towards exclusive breastfeeding.
Twin babies are often discharged before this, and are commonly breastfeeding and being topped up with expressed milk or formula when they go home. This is called ‘triple feeding’ and is a very intense routine. Lots of support from family and friends is useful during this time.
Once the babies are feeding efficiently and waking themselves before or around the three hours’ mark, are past their due date and gaining weight as expected, the mother can follow their lead and move to responsive feeding. The average breast-fed baby aged one to six months feeds 11 times in 24 hours, with a range of six to 18 feeds. Parents should be reassured that frequent feeding is normal. If tandem feeding, parents can follow the feeding cues of the hungrier or more alert baby, and wake the other in order to feed both together.
Tandem feeding is a useful skill, but not essential. It enables the mother to settle both her babies at once and can help stimulate her milk supply. It is the mother’s choice whether she tandem feeds all the time, occasionally or not at all. There are many different positions to try.
Babies can successfully tandem feed from early on. If one baby is feeding better than the other, tandem feeding can help the poor feeder as the stronger baby does all the hard work of stimulating the mother’s let down reflex and maintaining the flow of milk. Research suggests that when tandem feeding, the milk has a higher fat content, and the mother experiences more frequent let downs (Prime, et al., 2012).
Many mothers wonder whether they should swap breasts when tandem feeding. Swapping means that each eye and ear of both babies will be stimulated by being on top during feeds, and that if one breast has a stronger flow, both babies will benefit. However, not swapping may mean that each baby gets more ‘personally tailored’ breastmilk. There is no right or wrong answer as long as babies are developing well.
©Breastfeeding Twins and Triplets UK, 2020 – Kathryn Stagg, IBCLC
Breastfeeding Twins and Triplets UK – Registered Charity no. 1187134 (Registered in England) www.breastfeedingtwinsandtriplets.co.uk Breastfeeding Twins and Triplets UK @BfTwinsUk
Forster, D. A. & al, e., 2017. Advising women with diabetes in pregnancy to express breastmilk in late pregnancy (Iabetes and ANtenatal Milk Expressing [DAME]: a multicentre, unblinded, randomised controlled trisl. Lancet, 389(10085), pp. 2204-2213.
Nyqvyst, 2004. How can kangaroo mother care and high technology care be compatible?. Journal of Human Lactation, 20(1), pp. 72-74.
Prime, D. K., Garbin, C. P., Hartmann, P. E. & Kent, J. C., 2012. Simultaneous breast expression in breastfeeding women is more efficacious than sequential breast expression.. Breastfeeding Medicine, 7(6), pp. 442-7.