From the archives: When breastfeeding multiples "fails"

I originally wrote this post for HDYDI last April as my boys approached their second birthday. As new readers have come to our blog in that time, I thought I would repost my experience trying to exclusively breastfeed.

I had plans to exclusively breastfeed my boys until they were at least a year old. I read books, attended classes, lined up lactation consultants (LCs), lined up a post-partum doula, and watched videos. I was ready for anything, or so I thought. I would find I was not the least bit prepared for breastfeeding two preemies.

My boys were born at 36w, 3d. At birth, Nate had breathing issues and Alex had “feeding issues.” Every preemie parent knows it is so easy to say “feeding issues” and so hard to deal with those feeding issues. We couldn’t leave the NICU until he gained weight.

In the meantime, we spent 24 hours a day at the hospital. I pumped every 3 hours and Jon labeled precious containers of breastmilk for the boys’ use in the NICU. After two days, they were cleared to try breastfeeding. Every three hours, we’d get seven people together to breastfeed – one nurse to wake up Alex, one nurse to wake up Nate, an LC, me, Jon, Alex, and Nate. For 20 minutes, the nurses would vigorously rub the babies’ heads, stroke their palms, and gently shake them until they woke up. I was then under the gun to try to get a good latch with each baby and get them sucking before they fell asleep again. No pressure or anything!

For the first couple of days, there was no success. They would then get a formula/breastmilk feeding by gravage and I would go back to my room to pump. We eventually got to the point where Nate was feeding well. However Alex’s sucking reflex was so weak we only had one successful feeding the entire week in the NICU.

At home, things rapidly went downhill. Jon and I were exhausted trying to focus on breastfeeding. The routine was – 20 minutes wake baby 1, 30 minutes feed, 20 minutes wake baby 2, 30 minutes feed, 30 minutes Laura pump, 60 minute break and start again. 24 hours a day.

Alex never stayed awake long enough for a feeding and the time he was awake, his sucking reflex was extremely weak. He lost so much weight his skin was sagging off him. We made a joint decision with our pediatrician to supplement with formula. An LC showed us how to cup-feed and SNS-feed. We had an LC at our home trying to help us as well. I broke down in giggling hysterics the first time Alex drank from a cup. Jon cried one night when Alex could barely stay awake through one ounce of formula. We were so worried Alex would die or have to  be re-hospitalized.

During this entire time, Nate was feeding well. I spent hours on the phone and internet with experts on what to do about Alex. We’d try him at the breast with an SNS then try to cup-feed him and eventually had to get out a bottle at each feeding.

I completely exhausted myself to the point of depression trying to get breastfeeding to work. We’d set the alarm to get one hour of sleep and when it would go off, I would cry hysterically. I got to the point that I didn’t want the boys to wake up because I was so tired. I cried and cried and cried. I cried in bed, I cried in the shower, and I cried sitting in my living room. I have a history of depression and I was heading a bad path very quickly.

Here’s where Jon saved me. I learned parenting is a joint decision. Jon said we had to make the best decision for our FAMILY. We were not comfortable with breastfeeding just one of the boys while the other was formula fed.  We decided we would try a new strategy for 24 hours. I would pump and we would bottle-feed the boys. I would get some rest then we would re-assess.

Those 24 hours, I didn’t cry once. I started to enjoy being a mom. I started to enjoy cuddling my babies and staring at their little toes and fingers. I felt the fog lifting once I switched to pumping. I felt like myself again. The despair and depression were gone. I decided to become an exclusive pumper.

We had lined up help for 2 months and when our help left, I found it very difficult to pump and care for the boys at the same time. After much discussion, Jon and I decided I would stop pumping. Our freezer stash lasted until the boys were almost 3 months old.

Looking back, I don’t feel like I failed at breastfeeding. At each step along the way, we made the decision we felt was best for our entire family. And that’s what I didn’t understand about parenting while I was pregnant – these decisions need to include the entire family, not just the babies. I would have loved to have made it to a year, but I feel like we did everything we could to make it successful. I have peace with my almost 3 months of breastfeeding twins as a first-time mother. While breastfeeding didn’t work out the way I planned, I feel ok about it because nothing in parenting has turned out the way I planned yet it continues to far exceed my expectations.

18 thoughts on “From the archives: When breastfeeding multiples "fails"

  1. Thanks so much for this post. I had a similar experience in that breastfeeding did not turn out as I hoped and I really beat myself up about first, exclusively pumping, and second, switching to formula at 4 months. As moms, I think it is very difficult to tune out all of the outside input and pressure and really make a decision that is right for your family. In the end, the decisions that I made resulted in me being a better and less stressed mom for my kids…I don’t think anyone can argue with that!

  2. Reading this brought back some not-so-distant memories of our own decision to stop breastfeeding. I tried to exclusively pump for awhile, but it did nothing to alleviate the stress and exhaustion. Eventually, at eight weeks, we decided enough was enough. We are so much happier now, and I do not regret our decision one little bit (though I am completely supportive of those that choose to continue BFing!)

    Sometimes you just have to adjust your plans in order to make sure everybody is healthy, and happy mom makes for happy babies.

    I don’t look at it as a failure. I succeeded in BFing my twins for eight weeks. That’s great!

    Thanks for your post.

  3. I read this post a few times (on your site) as I struggled with BF. Now I’m weaning Ned (at only 4.5 months) and Penny never caught on very well so she hasn’t BF in almost 2 months. I do wish I could have gone 6 months but I feel like a happy mom and I love my kids to bits. I did have to shake my addiction to pumping. I mean I would squeeze in so many sessions to “keep up my [dwindling] supply”. It seriously cut into play time and mommy-kid time and I’m glad I broke the habit a month or so ago.

  4. as another ‘failed’ bfeed’ing mama, i totally understand this post. i pumped and fed them bf exclusively for 8 weeks, at week 8, i lost it. the rounds of pumping/bottle prep/feeding/cleanup/uh, pump were exhausting. pumping at 11 for their feed then at 2, i will never forgot that. but, i did it and i stopped when i did because i talked to my firend with triplets at week 8 and here is the line that got me….

    your pump is like your third baby and you did not sign up for that, did you? i laughed a little but realized she was right. sometimes i wish we had two interested babies that wanted the plethora of milk i was making. sometimes i wished i had tried harder to get a good latch. sometimes i read ‘success’ stories and think it might have worked.

    and then i look at my healthy and happy boys and know it was right for us. just like what ever you do for your family is right for you. and that matters most, doesn’t it?

  5. I love this post because of the number of important issues it touches on for MOM’s

    1. How freaking hard BFing is
    2. How scary and all-consuming it is when a baby has trouble eating
    3. How close depression can be for many moms when there is no sleep and the stress of two, or more, newborns to care for
    4. The fact that solutions are there—so often, I think as a mom I get stuck in this idea that there’s nothing I can do to make things easier. So often there are, if someone can just help me see the solution. Good for your husband!

    Thanks for sharing…

  6. Great post, very encouraging to new moms who struggle with this. I managed to BF my twins for the first 3 months. Then I returned to work and gladly, happily transitioned them to formula and never looked back. I refused to pump at all, I hated pumping with my first son and it was very liberating (as a second time mommy) to have more confidence in my decisions.
    My babies did fine on formula! I wish the pressure about BF would ease up a little on the new moms, and that they would realize their options.
    I wholeheartedly agree that it must be about the FAMILY and not just the babies. Without a stable family and healthy mommy, the babies suffer the most.

  7. Thanks for reposting this. I have two friends who are expecting twins and want to breastfeed and I have offered my support… but having only breastfed a single baby (which I found challenging enough), I need to know more about the added challenges of multiples. And you certainly didn’t fail – your babies had a few months of breastmilk and that is awesome.

  8. This was a great post, and really captures those newborn twin days that many of us blackout for. My mom has a catch-phrase, “Things get easier when you stop worrying what your kids have for breakfast.” I get a kick out of it because that day never really comes. Feeding is one of those first and long lasting parental concerns. Breastfeeding is a MoM’s introduction to that sometime dubious joy.

    For you new and expectant MoMs, going into feeding issues with your eyes open is smart. There are so many charged issues surrounding breast / bottle. This site has got many good posts on the subject.

    When the stars are all aligned right, breastfeeding multiples can work. My girls are still going strong at 11 months old. The fact that they never needed a drop of formula is something I’m really proud of, but it didn’t come without some sacrifices.

    As has been mentioned above, feeding is just one part of parenting, and shouldn’t take over the other aspects.

    Thanks for the re-post!

  9. Thank you for posting this. I am a new mom of 9-wk-old twin girls, and I’m also a “failed” breastfeeder. The downfall of my grand breastfeeding plan started with prematurity, a difficult birth, and low birth weight, but I cite exhaustion and depression as the final factors that ended any attempt to breastfeed and wish that more women would follow your lead and discuss this.

  10. Thank you so very much for reposting this. I just stopped pumping for my 5-month-old triplets and it was such a wrenching decision but I had major supply issues that could not be overcome. For the last two months, I was only able to pump 3-4 ounces a day despite trying so many different things. I was finally overcome with depression, completely wrung out physically and mentally and my babies never latched consistently, but now they refuse to try at all. It still upsets me every day but it is so wonderful to know I am not alone.

  11. I too became a full time pumper. My Triplets were born at 32 5/7 and I was able to start nursing my daughter 3 times a day in the NICU. After the babies came home I attempted to nurse 2 at a time and then 1 for the first 2 weeks and pump in between. I ended up in ICU 9 days after delivery for congestive heart failure, where I continued to pump…..but ultimately had to “pump and dump” because of all the heart meds I was on. After the first 2 weeks at home I couldn’t take care of all 5 kids while nursing and pumping, so I switched to strictly pumping, and it’s what worked for us. I did it for 2 1/2 months and got them past their due date, which was my goal. I think you are absoultly right when you say that you have to do what’s right for the family. People put such high expectations on themselves that it has to be done a certain way. Thanks for sharing!

  12. I’m a mom to three singletons (10, 5, & 1) who stumbled upon this blog today. Just amazing!!

    Every nursing story is unique. It’s so beautiful. With my first, she refused to latch. I pumped for the first 4 months, but 10 years ago, let.me.tell.you! the pumps are nothing like they are now. My middle daughter had feeding issues. I pumped for 6 weeks but found that I was missing time with her. She needed my love and attention more than the fresh milk…

    I nursed my little guy for a few months until returning to work. I pumped every four hours (like a good girl) only to come down with mastitis – 3 times in 3 months. Ugh! I was faced with pumping and dumping (the freezer supply helped carry us through!). I pumped through month 10, used the freezer for month 11, and now we are weaning to a blend at 13 months old.

    My sister had a baby as I was weaning my little guy. Her son is 3 months, and she recently went to exclusively pumping. Although she has a singleton, her RN position and that of her husband (paramedic) call for crazy schedules. I love to laugh at her (I mean with her!) as I hear how swamped she is with pumping… It’s a joy to share the memories together!

    Failure with BFing is simple not trying. All of the moms who’ve posted have certainly succeeded!

    ~Allie Z

  13. Just wanted to add my thanks. My babes are 19 months now but I still question myself and feel guilty all the time for my 8 months of pumping after BFing failed (for all of the usual reasons like preemies, exhaustion, thrush, and exhaustion). Thanks for posting this.

  14. Just wanted to say thanks for this post. I have 19-month-old B/G twins, and I still look back on the BF experience and just think, “If I’d only known then what I know now…” Seriously, I know it’s sick, but I still lay awake at night thinking about it.

    Even with all the preparing I did I don’t think I ever accepted the fact that I would have my own unique and very difficult BF experience. Sometimes we think if we follow a certain formula that our experience will work out like others’ but that’s not always the case. I really, really tried and worked with a LLL BF consultant, but my experience was still completely different than what I had expected. I ended up with one champ breastfeeder of a boy and a girl whose daddy became primarily responsible for bottle feeding her.

    It was the beginning of learning that though our babies arrived together they are definitely individuals and we’ve really learned to treat them as such.

  15. My twin boys were full-term, but I had to have a C-Section because one was transverse. I wanted to breast-feed, knew it was best, read about it, went to a class, had help from a lactation consultant, but nothing seemed to work. I was exhausted, in pain from the incision, frantic because both babies ended up in the NICU with dehydration. We finally gave them formula because my milk just didn’t seem to come in. The whole experience left me depressed and feeling like a failure.
    Eight years later, I had almost the exact same experience with my next baby, a singleton. I switched to formula faster with him so he never ended up in the NICU.
    The good news is my twins are brilliant (in college now) and all three boys are extremely healthy. They never had ear infections or any of the bugs that other people’s kids seemed to get constantly. My youngest is smart too but in a social and musical way.
    My feeling about breast-feeding is it’s great if it works for you, but don’t feel bad if it doesn’t. You have plenty of company, and your child will be just fine.

  16. I am late commenting here, but I just happen on this and I had to chime in. Your story made me cry because it so closely mirrors my experience.
    I have 10 month twin boys. They were born at 36 and were 5lb & 6lb. Because there were no “health issues” they came home with me. I was sent home with 2 babies that I later learned were seriously tongue tied. Both had difficulty latching. One of them would take 15-20 to latch and would be screaming in hunger the entire time. I started the process of taking 20 minutes to latch a screaming baby, nurse 30+ minutes, latch 2nd baby, nurse 30+ minutes, supplement both (doctors orders), pump for 20 minutes & repeat. It was exhausting & in addition, because of there tongue ties, they destroyed my nipples & I began nursing with blisters and raw open wounds. We all 3 developed a yeast infection.
    I cried from exhaustion & pain hourly, I talked to numerous LLL & LC’s. 2 months later I finally had someone suggested having the boys tongues clipped. Unfortunately they had been nursing “wrong” for 2 months and they were now in the “habit.” Finally I went to exclusively pumping and just finished at 10 month. My babies had 80% of their milk intact as BM for 10 months, yet I still feel like I failed. Thank you for sharing your story. We are never the only ones facing a struggle are we!

  17. I thought that this information may help new twin moms that are bottle or breastfeeding. This pillow is very unique in that it offers four solutions for twin moms. It offers breastfeeding, bottle feeding, tummy time and support. When I came up with this pillow, I was trying to find something that could help me feed me twins more comfortably and cost efficiently. I had tried another pillow on the market but it just was not working for my neck and back. I really wanted a full back support. I also wanted a pillow that could be used for a long time. Little did I know that my twins at three would still be using it to eat snack and watch movies! I also wanted a pillow that was safe since they were spending so much time eating and playing in it. The Twin Z Pillow was wonderful in helping me through the first years of my girls lives. I really could not have lived without it. It is also made in the USA! It can be found at http://www.twinzpillow.com
    I hope this helps new twin mommies!!!
    Michelle

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