Supporting Breastfeeding Triplets

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Supporting Breastfeeding Triplets

When parents find out they are expecting triplets, 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 and 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 triplets is a difficult journey in itself.

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 multiples session. Accessing antenatal education at around 30 weeks’ gestation is a good idea, in case the babies are born prematurely.

Premature Birth

The majority of triplets are born early, usually arriving around 34 weeks gestation. This means the babies are 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 should 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.

Triplet babies are often discharged before exclusive breastfeeding has been established, 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.

Breastfeeding triplets once they get home

Many premature babies are still very sleepy and not feeding particularly efficiently once they are discharged from hospital. They may 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 is often necessary. Breast compressions can help the milk flow and encourage more effective milk transfer. Lots of support at home is essential during this time as trying to make sure all babies are fed and changed leaves little time for anything else. As the babies begin to breastfeed more effectively, top-ups can be gradually reduced.

Logistics of exclusively breastfeeding triplets

It is totally possible to exclusively breastfeed triplets. Breasts work on a supply and demand basis. If there are three babies “demanding” milk from the breast, then so long as the babies are feeding frequently and efficiently, or milk is removed regularly by hospital grade breast pump, the breast will respond by making three times the milk.

Some prefer to tandem breastfeed two babies and then breastfeed the third, rotating who gets the individual feed. Some prefer to tandem breastfeed two and give a bottle of expressed milk to the third, rotating who gets the bottle each time. In the second case the mother will need to pump after the feed for the next session. Others prefer to breastfeed all three separately to get some individual time with each baby. It is also possible to do more expressed bottles and less direct feeding, maybe breastfeeding one baby each feed directly and pumping for the other two. Or sometimes having a one or two feeds using all expressed bottles given by the partner or helpers so that mum can have a stretch of sleep.

There is no right or wrong way to do this – it’s whatever suits the family best. And feeding patterns can be changed for different times of day or for different stages and ages. Keeping an open mind and being flexible is likely to help maximize breastfeeding.

Tandem feeding

Babies can successfully tandem feed from early on, even whilst they are still in the neonatal unit. If one baby is feeding more effectively 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). Of course the main benefit to tandem feeding is that two of the babies can be fed in the time of one, thus increasing the efficiency of the feeding session.

Combination feeding triplets

Triplet families often decide that formula feeding should be part of feeding their babies. We must always value every single drop of breast milk triplets babies receive. Sometimes the option of combination feeding will result in the babies being able to be breastfed or receive breast milk for longer, and that can only be a good thing.

Many triplet families fall into a pattern of tandem breastfeeding two babies and formula feeding the third, rotating which babies received the formula each feed. Some families prefer to breastfeed one baby each feed and formula feed the other two babies. Sometimes families may prefer to use a combination of breastfeeding directly, pumping and formula feeding. Or maybe just expressed milk and formula with no direct breastfeeding. Again it is whatever works best, and be flexible, it may change with time.

©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

©Breastfeeding Twins and Triplets UK, 2020

References

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.

Morton, J. et al., 2009. Combining hand techniques with electric pumping increases milk production of mothers with preterm infants. Journal of Perinatology, 29(11), pp. 757-764.

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.

Breastfeeding twins/triplets in the Neonatal Unit

Around 40 per cent of multiple births need some extra support after birth and end up having to go to the Neonatal Unit (NNU) of Special Care Baby Unit (SCBU). It the babies need more intensive care they may go to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU). This can be a very worrying time for parents. We have put together some tips to help parents survive and also to help ensure they meet their breastfeeding goals, despite having to be separated from their babies.

If you have warning that the babies might come early, prepare yourself by researching breastfeeding, and go to see the NNU so you know what to expect. It can be quite a daunting place full of wires and beeps.

Try to go to a breastfeeding class before babies arrive. If there is a preparing to breastfeed session in the hospital once your babies are in NNU you could attend to learn about it then, even though your babies are already out!

If you have some notice of your impending birth you may want to try collecting some colostrum before they arrive. This might give you a head start. Talk through this with your doctor if you are less than 36 weeks pregnant.

Once babies arrive, make sure you are shown how to hand express, ideally within the first hour after birth. If you are too unwell then try to do it as soon as you are able. You can collect drops of colostrum in a syringe. Here is a really great video tutorial from Global Health Media

Once your milk begins to come in, usually around day 3, you can move on to the pump. Hospital grade pumps should be available for you when you are in hospital. Often hospitals have a pumping room. You may also be able to pump by the side of your baby’s incubator.

Make sure, once you are discharged, that you have access to a hospital grade double pump. Sometimes hospitals or children’s centres have pumps to borrow. If not, you can hire them from the manufacturer. Some NNUs will have a discount code for you to use.

Ask questions, nothing is too silly. Make sure you are consulted on everything and if you do not understand something, ask what it means. Write down questions as you think of them or you won’t remember when the doctors comes round.

Write notes about what they say. It’s hard to remember later. Especially if trying to relay things back to your partner or family members.

Try to be fully involved in their cares. It may feel like your babies aren’t yours as they are being looked after by the nurses and doctors. But there are plenty of things you can do. And they are you babies. It is very important to remember this.

Do not let anyone tell you breastfeeding preemies is not possible. Yes, it is a more difficult journey, but there are many, many families who have managed to breastfeeding their babies.

Find supportive staff. You won’t get on with everyone. But there will likely be one or two nurses who you really click with and you feel you can trust.

Ask to see the Infant Feeding Lead and talk through your plan to breastfeed your babies. They will be able to talk you through the different stages your babies will go through.

Ensure that the staff talk through the risks and benefits of giving formula or fortifier. Make sure you are fully informed before you make a decision to supplement.

Ask about donor milk. Hospitals often have certain criteria a baby will need to meet but it is always worth asking.

Pump as frequently as you can. The more often you express the more milk you will make, ideally 8 to 10 times a day for around 15-20 mins. Try to set alarms so you don’t forget.

Pumping sessions do not have to be evenly spaced.

It is however, very important to pump in the early hours of the morning, between 1-5am, as this is the time that your body has its highest levels of prolactin, the milk-making hormone.

Have something to remind you of the babies when you’re not there, photos, video, cloths that smell of them, some NNUs have fabric squares you can leave in the incubator with the babies and take home with you. Smell is a very evocative scent and this can help with bonding and milk supply!

If you can, pump by the incubators so you can continue to be with them and see them.

If you miss a pumping session, try to squeeze up the others so you still get to your total in 24 hours.

You may find power pumping once a day helps your supply. It mimics babies cluster feeding.

For more detailed info, read “Establishing Milk Supply With a Pump”

Expressing milk for your babies feels great as it is something you can actually do for them whilst they are in the NNU.

As soon as the babies are well enough, ask for skin to skin. And as soon as they have reached around 33 weeks gestation they should be able to begin trying to breastfeed.  

Ask for support with transitioning your babies to the breast. The nurses and infant feeding team should be able to talk you through the steps needed to get baby breastfeeding. For more info read our article “Transitioning Premature Babies onto The Breast”

See if your partner can stay overnight, some hospitals have facilities for this.

Try to have a support network around you to feed you and look after you whilst you look after the babies, especially if you also have older children to think of. Get them to fill the freezer with nutritious food, run the vacuum round, give you lifts to the hospital, do the school run….

Make sure you have plenty of snacks! Get food delivered to the hospital by friends or family so you don’t have to live on hospital food all the time. Have a bottle of water on you at all times. Hospitals are hot and dry.

Find other families in the same situation. Get chatting to others in the pumping room. Join support groups online and on social media. This will be a massive support to you whilst you are in hospital and once you are discharged.

Self care. Make sure you eat and sleep. Have a break. Do something for you whilst babies are being looked after by very capable hospital staff! Allow yourself to leave.

Take pictures of everything. Even the painful bits. You will want to be able to look back at this time one day.

Celebrate every tiny milestone. Celebrate every drop of breast milk. 

You do not have to introduce a bottles to get home. But you may find that babies will continue to need to be topped up for a little while once they are discharged. Many babies are discharged around 36 or 37 weeks gestation if they are well enough and there can still be some feeding issues at this age. Have a read of “Breastfeeding 36 or 37 week babies”  for more info on the issues you may come across.

Once discharged try to make contact with your local breastfeeding support so you have ongoing support throughout the rest of your breastfeeding journey. And of course Breastfeeding Twins and Triplets UK Facebook Group is a fantastic resource.

 

 

Kathryn Stagg IBCLC, Sept 2019