Women pregnant with multiples are often alarmed to find themselves automatically placed in a ‘high-risk’ category. In fact, most women carrying twins, triplets or more will go on to have uneventful pregnancies and healthy babies.
However, there are conditions that can arise in any pregnancy, such as anaemia, preeclampsia or gestational diabetes, which are more common in multiple pregnancies and are therefore worth watching out for.
There are also some complications that arise only in a multiple pregnancy. Each of these is rare, but when they happen they do need medical attention and monitoring.
Fortunately, much more is known about these rare conditions than was once the case, and the medical expertise now available is outstanding – as parents of multiples who have dealt with such problems can testify.
If you are concerned about any of the issues listed below, talk to your doctor or midwife. You can also ring Tamba’s freephone helpline Twinline on 0800 138 0509. This confidential listening service is staffed by volunteers who are parents of multiples themselves and have had training in the issues that can affect a multiple pregnancy. Twinline is open every day of the year from 10am-1pm and 7pm-10pm.
Here’s a brief list of what to watch out for .
Anaemia: this occurs when you run short of red blood cells and haemoglobin. Symptoms are feeling tired, looking pale, being short of breath and fainting. A diet rich in iron will help keep haemoglobin levels up. Foods to go for are game, lentils, haricot beans, dark green vegetables and breakfast cereals fortified with iron. You can also take supplements (if they cause constipation, get plenty of fluid and fibre; changing brand may help).
Preeclampsia: symptoms are a rise in blood pressure and/or protein present in urine, so both of these will be regularly monitored. It may be associated with symptoms such as swelling of the face, sudden swelling or puffiness of ankles and hands, severe headaches,affected vision, and in more severe cases, pain in the upper abdomen. If you suffer any of these symptoms, contact your healthcare team immediately. You may need hospital care and bed-rest to reduce the blood pressure, and in severe cases the babies may need to be delivered early. If this happens, steroid injections may be given to help their lungs develop in readiness.
Gestational diabetes: this is high blood sugar during pregnancy which is caused by your body not making/using enough insulin. Symptoms include feeling very hungry or thirsty, needing to pass urine frequently, tiredness and blurred vision. These symptoms are not always noticeable, hence the need for regular urine testing at antenatal appointments. Gestational diabetes shouldn’t be a problem once it has been detected. Treatment involves dietary changes, monitoring and sometimes insulin.
Vaginal bleeding: one in four multiple mothers in a Tamba survey reported some vaginal bleeding or spotting in pregnancy. It is usually harmless. However, it is essential to tell your doctor immediately should it happen to you so that serious complications – such as ectopic pregnancy or problems with the placenta – can be ruled out.
Obstetric cholestasis: this is a liver condition where the normal flow of bile is impaired and bile salts build up in the blood. The main symptom is severe itching, often on the hands and feet. Other symptoms are fatigue and sleep deprivation from itching, loss of appetite, dark urine and/or pale stools, and mild depression. The treatment involves regular monitoring and medication to reduce the bile acids in the bloodstream. It is sometimes necessary to deliver the babies early to protect them. You can help your body by cutting down on fatty and fried foods so your liver has less work to do. Avoid alcohol and drink lots of water. Keeping cool may reduce itching, as may a cool shower and soaking your hands and feet in icy water before bed.
Twin to Twin Transfusion Syndrome (TTTS): this is a rare complication that only affects twins who share a placenta. In TTTS, a blood transfusion occurs from one twin (the ‘donor’) to the other (the ‘recipient’). The donor twin becomes smaller and may suffer anaemia, while the recipient twin is put under strain. Often the donor twin also runs short of amniotic fluid but the recipient has lots, which can cause the mother’s belly to become larger than would be expected. If TTTS is diagnosed, your pregnancy will be closely monitored by frequent ultrasounds to check on the babies’ growth. If necessary, you may be offered laser ablation therapy to separate the blood vessels in the placenta.
Tamba has produced a guide for those experiencing a TTTS pregnancy. Download it here to read more on why TTTS happens, warning signs, treatments, and personal stories from those who have come through it.
The most common gestation for the onset of labour in twin pregnancies is approximately 37 weeks. However, labour may occur earlier than this, particularly with multiple births. The signs and symptoms of preterm labour are regular contractions of the womb, building up in strength and frequency, sometimes with passage of the mucous plug (‘show’) or breaking of the waters. Premature contractions are a common occurrence in pregnancy, particularly with twins and triplets, and in most cases they are not a sign of preterm labour. However, it can be very difficult to determine if labour is imminent or not and if you experience these symptoms you should inform a health care professional immediately. It is likely that you will be advised to go to hospital. Although it is difficult to stop true premature labour, it can sometimes be delayed, giving time to prepare the babies for an early birth.
Most twins and triplets grow normally in the womb, although they do tend to be a little smaller than singleton babies. In all pregnancies however, there is a risk that the placenta(s) will not keep pace with the needs of the growing baby and that this will cause their growth to slow down. This can put the baby, or babies, at risk if it goes unrecognised. Fetal growth restriction is more common in twin pregnancies and even more so in triplets and higher order multiples. Regular ultrasound scans will be offered to you to monitor the growth of your unborn babies. Premature delivery is sometimes recommended if one or more of your babies is very small.
For more on dealing with complications in a multiple pregnancy, download our Healthy Multiple Pregnancy Guide.
Follow the links to find out more about finding out you are expecting multiples, antenatal care, looking after yourself, common symptoms in multiple pregnancies, preparing for your babies’ arrival, work and finance, and birth plans.