There's no doubt about it, caring for multiples is a 24/7 job. Where parents of singletons can afford the luxury of being flexible to baby's demands, parents of multiples can't risk the unexpected. "You need a schedule to contain the chaos," advises Patricia Malmstrom, co-author of The Art of Parenting Twins and president of Twin Services Consulting.
The key, says Malmstrom, who is the mother of grown twins and an internationally recognized advocate for the improved care of multiples and their families, is to be methodical but not rigid. "Don't fall for the illusion that you're in control — it's your babies who are." You're simply being organized about accommodating their needs.
Timing Is Everything
Your first goal as the parent of multiples is to get all your babies eating and sleeping on the same schedule. If your newborns have spent any length of time in the hospital NICU (which is typical, since many are premature), they're likely to arrive home operating like clockwork. That's because NICU nurses are experts at getting newborns on a manageable schedule. Whether parents will keep to it once their babies come home is a personal choice.
Regardless, says Maureen Doolan Boyle, a mother of triplets and executive director of MOST (Mothers of Supertwins) Inc., an international support network for families of multiples, healthy babies have somewhat predictable schedule demands that you can build upon:
- Babies weighing less than 6 pounds tend to require feedings every 2 to 3 hours
- Once they reach 8 pounds, babies may go as long as 3 1/2 hours between feedings
- By 10 pounds, at the earliest, babies may be able to "sleep through" the night (4, 5, sometimes even 6 hours straight)
Creating Schedules and Rituals
One way to coax your kids' needs into a synchronized schedule: Partially ignore the old saying "never wake a sleeping baby" and when the first baby wakes up on her own to eat, rouse the other(s) so everyone feeds together. Couple this with reliable play-, bath-, nap-, and nighttime rituals, and before long, consistency should reign.
That is, until a growth spurt or other healthy development shifts your babies' needs, Boyle points out. Then the process may have to begin again. (Big sigh.)
Managing the Motherload
If you're taking care of one baby, but especially if you're taking care of two, three or more, you're going to be sleep-deprived. There's no way around it. What's important is not to let tiredness give way to extreme exhaustion and isolation. Lining up reliable help — whether it's volunteer, paid or a combination — is your insurance policy.
"Couples who arrange for help ahead of time do better with their newborns than those who take a 'wait and see' approach, because they have a built-in buffer against sleep deprivation," says Malmstrom. If you think having help is a sign of inadequacy, remind yourself that there are three shifts of nurses every 24 hours in the hospital's neonatal ward to do what parents do every day at home.
Be proactive: Think like a head nurse. Outline your babies' daily schedule (or give it your best guess — the guidelines above can help!), then staff in advance for full coverage.
Keeping Help at Hand
"Everyone wants to help with the babies," cautions Malmstrom, "but there will be times when it's more helpful to keep the food coming or do the laundry. Look for someone who's willing to take on whatever is needed." First, take inventory of your options. You might enlist:
- Friends and neighbors
- Volunteers from a church group or other organization
- Paid childcare and housekeeping professionals
- Teenage babysitters (especially usefully for their boundless energy, says Malmstrom)
Next, break down a typical week into tasks that you know will need to get done:
- Grocery shopping
- Paying bills and other household business
- Attending to older siblings, if there are any
- Feeding the babies
- Diapering the babies
- Bathing the babies
- Playing with the babies
- Shopping for the babies (formula, food, clothing, diapers)
- Washing/preparing bottles
If you're especially lucky, a friend may volunteer to recruit and organize a corps of helpers for you. Malmstrom has attended baby showers where guests signed up to help with the babies in lieu of gifts, which she suggests as a great idea. If you're not that lucky, match the helpers you've identified with whatever tasks you feel can be done by someone other than Mom or Dad ... and start "hiring." Be specific about the tasks you are hoping to assign, and the period of time you'll need coverage — say, four weeks with the option to renew after that.
One last bit of advice: Research shows that Mom's stress level is directly related to how much perceived help she's getting from Dad. That's why communication is so important. "Instead of just screaming 'HELP!' at your bewildered husband," says Malmstrom, "tell him exactly what you need him to do, and explain that this is not a permanently assigned task." This way, Dad can be a true help and Mom can feel supported by him.