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ParentsFebruary 28, 2017

Same DNA, same brain, same sleep patterns – right? What being a Twin Mum has taught me about child sleep


When it comes to sleep, identical twin babies might just hold the key to understanding what’s nature and what’s nurture – if twins have the same DNA and a mum who treats them the same, then surely it’s obvious: they’ll be two non-sleepers or two sleepers. If only it were that simple, says twin mum Angela Cuming.

Identical twins, they say, are a miracle of nature. No one knows exactly how or why they are created, all we know is that from the day of their birth they share a beautiful bond and are completely in sync with each other.

As the mother of identical twin baby boys please excuse me while I use the last of my energy reserves to die laughing.

Tommy and Henry
Henry and Tommy

My identical twins, who are 16 months old, are nothing, NOTHING alike, especially when it comes to one critical area: sleep.

Henry, our little angel from birth, slept through the night from when he was two months old. But Terrible Tommy has woken me up two, three, four times a night for I would say, oh, 16 months or so.

Right from the get go Tommy was trouble. Both twins spent 12 nights in NICU and while Henry was a textbook patient Tommy would give the poor nurses grief. He would buck and wriggle in his little incubator so much he’d set off alarms. He’d rip the wires monitoring his heartbeat off his chest – twice they thought he had stopped breathing – and pulled a drip from his ankle.

“He will be fine once you get him home, give him a couple of weeks,” the nurses said, as they all but threw him into our waiting car.

The six-week milestone came and went, then the three-month mark and Tommy would still wake every two hours at night, screaming and snuffling and vomiting.

And all the while his twin brother slept.

I was doing nothing different with either of them. A feeding diary shows both were fed almost exactly the same amount each day, at the same time. As they grew I stopped waking them at night for feeds, Henry would sleep on through while Tommy would still wake.

And it would kill me, it really would, watching one baby sleeping peacefully while the other wailed and kicked their legs. Being identical means they have exactly the same DNA. The egg was fertilised and, for whatever reason, split into two. They are in effect the EXACT SAME BABY WITH THE SAME BRAIN. Why on god’s earth did one brain want to sleep and the other go clubbing all night, every night?

I tried a dummy, he would spit it out. I tried patting his bum and shushing him back to sleep, he’d look at me the way you would Trump supporter when they tell you the President cares about the working class.

I tried barging into the spare room where my husband was sleeping at 2am (we took turns on night duty) and plopped Tommy on the bed and said “here have a baby”. That worked, but only for that night.

Tommy then developed the charming habit of banging his head against the cot mattress to “self-soothe” himself back to sleep. And making a horrible “mwa mwa mwa” noise while he did it.

By the six-month mark I was shattered, and began to visit Dante’s 10th circle of hell – googling ‘how to get your baby to sleep through the night”.

There was the controlled crying, not-so-good when he shares a room with another baby. And it didn’t work. I guarantee you that baby would cry until Hypercolour t-shirts were back in fashion rather than roll over and drift of to sleep.

“He’s too cold!” another expert told me. So I followed their advice and used a sleeping bag and the recommended 15 (I know!) layers of light blankets and he just got tangled like hair around a scrunchie and I suspect overheated.

I stuffed him full of food before bedtime, he got a tummy upset. I fed him lots and lots of milk, he spewed.

I read all the books about twins. I tried to put them on the same routine, but rather suspect the authors of that advice have never actually cared for one baby, let alone two at a time. All that happens is you have not one but two screaming, hungry babies on your hands and neither gets fed properly so neither sleeps properly.

I’d try sleeping with Tommy on the couch, he’d think it was party time and would crawl around the floor, bashing toy cars together. We co-slept and he wriggled around so much he fell off the bed. I used mobiles, white noise, a metronome, took all the toys out of his cot, put them all back in,  changed the mattress, the bedding, read to him, sang to him, and still that child would not sleep through the night.

I put a Teletubbie toy in his cot that would light up and play Twinkle Twinkle Little Star as a means to soothe him to sleep. He would activate that horrible little toy and shine it into his brother’s cot to wake him so he would have someone to talk to.

La La has now gone on holidays.

He wasn’t much better during the day, either. Henry would giggle and coo and stare out a window at the clouds for hours at a time. Often he would curl up on the floor and nap like a cat during the day. Once I forgot he was there and went to bed myself, only realising hours later he was still on a rug in the corner of the living room.

Tommy once crawled up to me with a giant earthworm stuck on the back of his head.

And now, here we are at the 16-month mark and Tommy still head bangs, and still wakes two or three times a night.

So what can parents take from this? If sleep is all about your parenting – what’s the deal with my twins? Surely the consolation for you (given I’m up all night there has to be a bright side) is that this clearly shows all kids a different. Some are sleepers and some are NOT SLEEPERS. It’s really that simple. There can be no other explanation.

I’ve sat on that nursery floor at 3am sobbing into my hands, slammed doors at 4am and pleaded with him at 5am: “If you go to sleep now, I promise you I will buy you a car when you turn 16, we can work this out.” I’ve tried to work it out.

I still treat each baby the same. They eat the same food, drink the same amount of milk, are awake during the day for the same amount of time, both crawl the same and use their walkers the same and have a bath together and get the same amount of love and cuddles and attention and OH MY GOD WHY WON’T YOU SLEEP LIKE YOUR BROTHER???!!!

And then I watch them, playing together outside, Henry picking daisies from the lawn and Tommy eating dirt and an apple core left inside a possum trap, and I realise they are just that, brothers. Not the same person, not the same brain. Two perfect little humans who, although identical twins, have their own personalities and traits and ways of sleeping.

And I remember those seven long, long months I carried those two babies, who shared only one placenta and who had only a small shot at making it all the way. I remember the twice-weekly scans to find out whether Tommy was still with us, the agonising moment he was taken from my arms and rushed to neo-natal and I think, you know what my son, you have all the time in the world to sleep.

Angela Cuming is a NZ print and radio journalist. She has three boys under three and hasn’t slept in five years. You can find her writing here.

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