When breastfeeding multiples "fails"

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Categories Breastfeeding, Formula, Mommy Issues

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.

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24 thoughts on “When breastfeeding multiples "fails"”

  1. Oh boy, now there’s a topic I could go on and on (and on…) about. Like you, I was so determined, took the classes, had the number for the LC, etc… Eight weeks later, I threw in the towel. I thought I might write one of these days about breastfeeding tips in hindsight. Things I wish I had done. I obviously don’t think I’ve quite made my peace with it, though in many ways I’m very happy with my choice and I do think it was the right one at the time. Ah, what an emotionally-loaded topic!

  2. Thank you for sharing your story in such detail. I think that we all learn quickly as mothers (especially MOMs) that things often don’t work the way we thought they would or intended. This is probably the only advice that I give to pregnant women when they ask for any, to stay flexible and do what is best when the time comes.

  3. I was also planning to exclusively breastfeed. It was very important to me. When my girls were born 10 weeks early via emergency c-section, it took several days for my milk to come in and it took several more of very painful swollen breasts to get even a few drops with the hospital grade pump. Turns out I’m one of those women who don’t respond well to a pump. I pumped for 12 weeks, every 3 hours around the clock, but I never produced enough to feed them beyond 4 weeks. At 12 weeks, the girls still weren’t able to latch and still weren’t removing any milk. The LC didn’t give me much hope. I stopped pumping and started living a much happier life with my babies. I still grieve the loss of breastfeeding but I don’t feel any guilt about my choices.

    That said, I think the outcome would have been different if I had gone in to the process with more education, preparation, and support. Having done quite a bit of research since our NICU experience 2+ years ago, I would have made different decisions and sought more help beyond that given to the average mom of full term and near term singletons.

  4. Thank you for sharing this with us. I too had many, many issues with breastfeeding. It is always nice to hear that you aren’t alone. It’s never good to have to share something so tramatic (which this was for me and so many other moms) but it is always nice to feel like you are not the only person out there dealing with it.

  5. thank you for this post. i was on the same train….oh, breast is best. and it really is. until your babies will not latch, or they latch then disengage to leave you with milk spilling all over them (the precious liquid gold!) as they study your face curiously. i pumped until they were 8 weeks and then felt like falling apart. i was exhausted, fragile (could not eat, man, i was skinny those days)(skinny for me, anyway) and crying a lot too. i felt like we had to make a choice and tim was so supportive. he kept telling me i had done a great job, they had what they needed, they would be fine. and though i still wish some days that i would have hung in there, that maybe i could have done it, i see them healthy and happy now, at almost one, and know it is okay.

    i finally gave myself permission to stop pumping when i spoke to my triplet mama friend. she told me that breast pump was like a third baby, requiring as much attention. for some reason, that made me feel better, because, hey, i did not sign up for triplets, did i?

    this forum is so great, when we share our experiences and support each other. huge thanks to all you who share and write here. smiles.

  6. Thank you for sharing, such a hot and very personal topic. My girls are 6 months old and I have been exclusively breastfeeding. They are my 3rd and 4th breastfed babies, but even with my prior experience I was not prepared for this. We have not had any problems with nursing(not to say that is hasn’t been extremely hard)…well unless you consider their very slow growth. I’ve been assured by their pediatrician and a lactation consultant that they are normal and growing at their own rate, but I can’t help but think that there is something wrong with my milk or that they are not getting enough fat. I’ve tried giving them breast milk mixed with formula in bottles and now sippy cups but they just won’t take it. I’m hopeful now that we’ve started soilds that maybe they’ll chunk up a little. Being a parent is hard, parenting more then one baby at once is beyond sanity. How we do it every day I’ll never be able to explain.

  7. people always think im contraversial when i say that i will always do what seems best for me, but im lucky that in my experience what is best for me is best for my babies. i breastfed my first single boy for 4 months exclusively – for the main reason that it was easier than preparing bottles and i invariably slept through his feeding. when i tried to pump at 4 months so i could have some time out, it just wouldnt work, it was like my son had a secret code to get the milk out. it made me frustrated, which in turn slowed my milk. your feelings seem to play such a huge part in it. i tried a couple of times, then went straight to formula, although he still b/f the majority of his feeds until he was 9 months.
    i plan to b/f the two i am growing but if its too much i wont hesitate to put them on formula. ive watched my sil try to pump for ‘the good of her baby’ but she was so exhausted that she had no energy for taking care of her babies other needs (the power of cuddles and laughs should never be underestimated) and her toddler.
    so i will hope to b/f for as long as it is right for me and i wont have a moments feeling of guilt if the time comes when its easier to formula. i hope not anyway…

  8. Thanks so much for sharing your experience so honestly and eloquently. I really appreciated your perspective.
    I had a similar experience. I finally confronted my determination to exclusively breastfeed when my pediatrician — who had been very supportive and encouraging of breastfeeding — remarked that the babies would be better off being bottled fed by a happy, well-adjusted mother, than being breastfed by a miserable one. Releasing my goal and switching to a routine that included bottles and formula improved our situation 1000% – for me, my husband and the girls.
    But it’s still a sensitive issue. As much as I know that I made the right decision at the time, I still felt the sting of judgement from other mothers, from myself, and from general societal attitudes. To this day — 13 years later! — I still feel twinges of guilt over my “failure.” I wrote an article about the topic on my site: Breastfeeding Guilt for Mothers of Multiples. I’ve linked in your post as added support for mothers facing similar situations.

  9. Great topic – for moms of multiples or otherwise. I had a very similar situation with my first born, singlton daughter. Like you I tried (in vain) and basically tortured both of us in the process! I eventually gave up, in order to try to preserve some sort of sanity, and pumped for three months. As mothers, we need to cut ourselves some slack and be okay with knowing that we are doing the best we can with the resources we have. And it definitely helps to hear other mothers talk about their own experiences so we don’t feel so alone.

  10. Wow! Thanks for this post! I thought I was the only one who “failed” breastfeeding twins. Mine were 6 1/2 weeks premature, wouldn’t latch on, and sleepy, especially DS. I tried pumping, but I didn’t have a good supply. (Maybe I didn’t give it enough time.) I hadn’t done research about breastfeeding twins/preemies previous to the births. I thought I still had time. Looking back, I don’t think I really had a lot of support in the hospital or once I got home. My twins came home one week apart and trying to be home, at the hospital, Dr. appointments, and adhere to a feeding/pumping schedule proved to be too much. My husband went back to work after both babies were home for one week. I had some help from my mom but not around the clock. I only tried pumping for one week after my son came home at 3 weeks old. I was so relieved to be through pumping, however, I still feel guilty that I didn’t learn more, solicit more help, and try longer and harder. Rhonda expressed my thoughts exactly!

    When I unexpectedly became pregnant 5 months later, I was so eager to try breastfeeding again. This time I would be prepared and not give up so easily. WRONG AGAIN! My son was born with a bilateral cleft lip/palate. Breastfeeding was pretty much out of the question. I pumped even though I did not have pleasant memories of pumping. My supply was actually better, which made me realize that was part of the problem before. I had nothing to compare it to. It was difficult with 3 under 18 months, but I pumped at least 4-5 times a day for nearly 7 months. He received exclusively breast milk for 5 months. I am very proud of my accomplishment and being able to provide him with breast milk before, during, and after his first surgery at 3 1/2 months old.

    I still hope to experience breastfeeding someday. But I try to remind myself that I did the best I could at the time.

    I’m sorry for the long comment! This topic is very personal to me!


  11. Laura, this post should be required reading for every mom…of multiples or not!

    There is WAY too much pressure and “guilt” associated with breastfeeding/bottlefeeding (and of course other personal parenting issues, too). It robs new moms of rest, sleep, feelings of confidence…it is truly heartbreaking. :(

    You absolutely made the RIGHT decision for you and your family; you should be COMMENDED…not condemned! (Your peace is well deserved!)

    In the early days of breastfeeding our duo (which were fraught with challenges I won’t go into here…), because they were so very slow to gain weight I’d nurse upwards of 45 minutes,…trying to make sure they got “enough.” Every three hours meant I MIGHT get 15-30 minutes of lying down/rest every third hour before the whole ritual would begin again. Seriously, if it hadn’t been for a non-dogmatic LC who told me I was not only making myself unhealthy by such extended windows of nursing…she surmised the babies might actually be EXERCISING much needed calories off by sucking so hard for so long!!!! (Once we limited the nursing sessions to a maximum of 20 minutes, ALL got much better!)

    How anxious I am for what I hope is a coming era of unanimous maternal support…and an end to the ‘judgment’ that so undermines new mamas! Your post goes a long way toward that effort! Great work, Laura!

  12. Oh, I can SO relate. When my twins were born, I had committed myself to breastfeeding and pumping to do all that I could for them. Who would have forseen the paralysis I was going to experience with my legs thanks to femoral nerve damage during labor? I decided to exclusively pump and supplement as needed b/c my supply just didn’t meet their demands with pumping. I did it for 4 months and it was HARD work! I commend you for doing what you could for however long you could…you made the choice that suited and, in turn, benefited your ENTIRE family! That’s what parenting is truly about…
    You should retitle your post—you most certainly did not fail…by any sense of the word!
    And, when my singleton was born 15 months after the twins (yikes!) the breastfeeding was still challenging in the beginning. The road has been different this time around, but she’s now 7 months old and we’re still going strong!
    Kudos to you!

  13. It still brings tears to my eyes to remember the first few days after the boys’ birth- pumping every 3 hours and not getting a single drop. Pumping and breastfeeding are hands down the most challenging experiences I’ve ever had. And even though I gutted it out for 13 months, I still feel like a failure for not following the principle of “supply and demand” and having to supplement with formula nearly every day for those 13 months. I was 99% miserable during that time, but for some reason if I had to do it all over again I wouldn’t change a thing.

  14. What a good post. My girls were born at 36 weeks 5 days and luckily had no problems latching on and feeding. I had gone to hospital classes on breastfeeding (dragging my husband along), had a lactation consultant visit my hospital room for guidance, bought the EZ-to nurse pillow. .. I was prepared, and it was STILL VERY HARD in those early days. Just like many of you said, it’s an unending cycle, I felt like I was constantly nursing those first, oh, 2 months. I was so sore. Through all of those classes and discussions, in the back of my mind I thought – it has to be more instinctual than this, women have been doing this forever (well, except those years of “Formula is best” dogma during the years my sisters and I were born!)
    Now they are over 11 months old and I am just starting to wean them, and I have such a mix of emotions. I’ll miss the closeness, but am excited to have my body back too (this might be TMI but I just yesterday got my period after over 20 months of not having it! That is crazy.) Anyway, I’m rambling but every one of you should feel proud that you tried. Your children are thriving, formulafed or breastfed, because they have intelligent, thoughtful, caring women as mothers who are concerned about this kind of thing. Your experience could have easily have been my experience and vice versa – but ultimately what matters is that your children are well loved.

  15. Thanks for sharing. I went thru the same situation, the babies never really latched on properly so i was an exclusive pumper and sheesh that is a lot of work. When I went back to work it was tougher. Then my milk started to dwindle and the babies were getting 1 bottle of BM a day, then it was harder to get just 1 bottle so I just recently decided to stop pumping. I figured I have done the best I could…my babies are 4 and a half months old now…so I think I did good…YOU did good!

  16. WOW . . . I so needed this website when I had just had my boys! This sounds exactly like my story! I had heard from everyone in my family to BF, really BF if you can . . . but none of them had twins or had ever had a baby in the NICU. By the time we left the NICU my boys were too use to the bottles, after much effort to try BF’ing in the NICU it failed and the body temps went down so we had to put them back and la dee dah . . . no one understood, but like you I made it to 3 months and I am proud for that! Even if it was just pumping, I am still proud of it! I cried and cried everytime my alarm went off also, my dh cried w/ me! It is crazy to think back and realize how far I have actually come! They will be TWO in a couple weeks! TWO! Wow! Great story!

  17. mine made it (feeding/pumping) 3 months too and i was thrilled! hello, that’s 3 quality important first months of breastmilk! hooray for you!

  18. with my first baby, i only managed to bf for three months. i felt so guilty about not trying hard enough, that i promised myself that i will try my best to bf longer for my next baby. then i had twins! but i was still determined. i researched for the best breast-pump on the market, rented a hospital-grade breast pump, bought containers/plastics for storage, etc, etc.

    my babies latched on almost immediately and i was so happy! but pumping is soo not for me. it was exhausting and frustrating-i couldn’t even fill up half a bottle after hours of pumping. at night i had to get up almost every hour to bf. i was like a walking zombie during the day. i finally gave up after 4 weeks and decided to supplement with formula during the day. so during the day, i would sleep and let my maid and my mother take care of the babies, so that i could take care of them at night. and soon after i started work, i stopped bf completely because i just couldn’t pump out enough supply.

    i sound so selfish right? i felt so guilty about it. i kept thinking it could have worked if only i had just tried harder and wasn’t so selfish.

    thanks so much for this post. i know now i’m not alone.

  19. I wish I’d read this when my boys were first born. I nursed my first child (a girl) exclusively for 1 year–no problems at all. In fact, my milk supply was so abundant with her, I could have donated and still fed her. Therefore, when the boys were born, I expected similar success. We, too, made a decision in the interest of the family as a whole when the boys were only 4 weeks old that we would switch to formula. I’d been pumping a week at that point and just couldn’t keep up with an 18-month old running around, pumping, and then bottle feeding my two babies (NICU time, slightly tongue-tied, sleepiness, etc. all played into my needing to pump instead of nurse). It was a decision I AGONIZED over, but I do think that decision was the best one. It wasn’t easy–still isn’t, but I now have two healthy 1 year olds!

  20. I too am in the midst of the battle of breastfeeding twins…it’s such a roller coaster. We supplemented from day 1. And I have felt guilty for supplementing since day 1. They are now almost 8 months old and are eating solids quite nicely and we’ve been able to leave the formula behind…but like you, I have found comfort in knowing it was a FAMILY decision to not fully breastfeed. Especially with an older child–a 5 year old starting kindergarten the day before the babies came, I had to realize that she deserved my time and attention as much as they did. I wish there wasn’t so much guilt tied to NOT breastfeeding…it doesn’t make you less of a mom….in fact, as you point out, you can actually enjoy your babies MORE in some cases! And THAT is HEALTHY!!

  21. Long ago and far away – (my girls are turning 18!) I was unable to breastfeed. My sisters -in- law did this effortlessly so I was looked down upon by my husband’s family. I felt truly awful. I can relate to the experiences of the other moms. However, my girls thrived on formula and grew up to be healthy, happy, confident young women. (As an aside, between the 2 of them, they have missed 5 days of school their whole career – their immune systen turned out just fine.)As much as you want to provide the best for your children in all things, sometimes that just doesn’t happen.

    Harvard is one of the best schools – but that’s not going to happen either.

    Good luck to those with little ones, they are so much fun. However, being able to hand the girls the girls the keys to go pick up Chinese is great, too!

  22. Hi

    I guess the problems are tha same all over the world for us Mums of multiples, even in Australia.

    I remember well the amount of effort I put into being prepared (books, classes, meetings, support groups – I could BF twins easy, I was ready!)……..then a premature birth, the NICU stay, the expressing, the trying to get my sleepy babies to feed, the expressing, the lack of sleep, more expressing, going to the Hospital, expressing, finally home after deciding to express and bottle feed EBM. Lasted 6 weeks here and had to quit for my sanity and health due to many issues.

    Oh, and I remember VERY well the tears that lasted for well over a month and the guilt that I still have even though I am glad I made the decision to quit at the time. I think we are our own worst enemies when it comes to the guilt we feel and how we think we are such horrible mothers for quitting – lucky I have a husband who practically had to make me quit or else I don’t know where I would have ended up.

    I think I have blocked out the first 6 months of my twins life and they are now 8 months and I am certainly filling the old brain cavity with many good and precious memories!

  23. Thank you so much for this very valuable post. One of my triplets (33 weekers) was a great latcher from the very beginning, but the other two were both a struggle to get on the breast. I had to give up nursing one because her reflux was so severe that she was on an apnea monitor for it and we had to thicken her feeds to control it. The third just screamed at me, and honestly we did not get good breastfeeding support in the NICU.

    I still struggle with guilty feelings, but mostly I have made my peace with our decision. And here I am still nursing my good little latcher almost 2 years later.

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