It’s vital to treat each of your twins as individuals from the start, says Jessica Bomford, mum of three and author of ‘It's Twins! Now What?’, £9.99, summersdale.com
Being the parent to identical twins is a fascinating and very special experience.
And one of the unique issues that raising them involves is encouraging your children to be individuals while also recognising the importance of the twin relationship.
Because, when you’re caring for two babies who generally want or need the same things at the same time, it’s easy to see them as a unit rather than individuals.
But there’s lots you can do to help your lovely babies be confident and independent while also acknowledging their twin bond.
How can you tell identical twins apart?
Of course, your first task is to be able to tell them apart. The vast majority of parents of identical twins quickly see them as very different babies. Sometimes this is helped by a birthmark, but there can be other clear differences right from the start, such as size or temperament.
However, if your babies are born looking very similar, you may want to try some identifying tactics initially, such as keeping on the hospital wristbands, painting the toenails of one twin or having designated clothes, such as a hat or cardigan, for each twin.
At first glance, identical twins undoubtedly look similar, but although they share the same DNA sequence, they can be surprisingly different, both in personality and physically.
In the early days and weeks, it can be difficult to find time to focus on each baby separately, but when you do, you are likely to start to notice these differences in temperament and to see that their responses to the same toys or books can vary dramatically.
Identical twins with individual traits
The more you are able to focus on each baby separately, the more these traits will become apparent, and the more they will help you and others to see them as different people. Try to grab whatever time you can to do this – nappy changing and feeding are good opportunities.
Most parents of identical twins – and eventually the twins themselves – will find that they are frequently asked who’s who.
Learning to deal with this and coming up with good answers are an essential part of life with identical twins. You may be surprised by who among friends and family can tell your twins apart and who finds it difficult.
Even grandparents can struggle, particularly if they don’t see the children regularly, and may feel embarrassed by this. Some people might be good at telling the twins apart when they are together, but not when they see one without the other.
So, throw out some lifelines for those who are struggling to see your children as different people.
Help others tell your identical twins apart
Your first step should be to remember that, if you treat your twins as individuals, others are more likely to follow suit.
So don’t call them ‘the twins’ and gently let anyone who uses that term know that you’d rather they used their names. Try also not to always use their names in the same order, to reinforce that they are individuals.
Say ‘Ben and Johnny’ just as much as you say ‘Johnny and Ben’, for fairness. Use their names frequently so that anyone too embarrassed to ask for a reminder can pick up on who’s who.
And give close relatives some subtle help if they are struggling. Remind them about the differences you know and see. Better still, suggest that they look for differences themselves.
Dress the babies in different outfits or, if you prefer to dress them the same, give them different coloured socks or some other small distinguishing details.
When you see or meet people, show them something special about each baby to help reinforce a difference – for example, ‘Look at Jacob’s lovely new red top’ or ‘Can you believe how much Millie’s hair has grown since you were last here?’ This also avoids having to say who’s who.
One of the hardest questions for a parent of identical twins to answer is, ‘How do you tell them apart?’
To your eyes, the differences are often all too obvious, yet these are also sometimes impossible to describe.
In the absence of an answer, many people jump in with their own suggestions, which often involve physical comparisons.
Someone may judge that one twin has ‘a long face’ or ‘a big head’. While your children are babies, this will have relatively little impact on them, but as they get older it may start to reinforce insecurities about their appearance.
Other labels can be equally unhelpful, such as ‘Who’s the quiet one?’ or ‘Is he the naughty one?’.
The solution is to come up with a good answer. Try simply saying, ‘I find it quite easy, but I appreciate that to most people they look very similar.’
Another useful response is, ‘It’s hard to say because they change every day. To me they look very different, but I realise other people find it tricky to see that.’
Or try, ‘Sometimes it can be hard to tell them apart physically, but they are very different and that shines through when you know them better.’
Identical twins can confuse young children
Parents tend to assume that older siblings will be able to tell their brothers and sisters apart more easily than adults, and sometimes this is the case.
However, young children can be baffled by the idea of identical siblings.
In the confusion of the first few weeks, some toddlers may not even fully realise that there are two babies, particularly if they are being fed one at a time. Help your older child by encouraging him to build up a separate relationship with each sibling. This may involve fetching a favourite toy or helping to pick out an outfit.
If it can be done safely, encourage your older child to play with one twin near you while you bath the other.
He might be able to ‘read’ him a book, or sing a song to make him laugh. The more a sibling gets to know the babies separately, the more likely he is to see them as different – and so not such a force to be reckoned with.
And an older child may find it upsetting if it is difficult to tell the twins apart for himself, so reassure him that it will get easier as they get older.
And there’s one last essential task for new parents of identical twins: label every photo as you take it.
You may think you’ll remember that Johnny was wearing the green trousers, but chances are you won’t – in fact, one of the questions that health professionals ask parents of twins who aren’t sure whether their children are identical is if they can tell the babies apart in photos.
Label photos and your twins will definitely know who they are when they look back at them as they grow up.
Your children will always be twins, and that’s very special, but they will be so many other things too. Show the outside world that they make a lovely pair, but as individuals they have even more talents to offer.
How identical are identical twins?
Dr Bonamy Oliver, a developmental psychologist, explains: ‘Increasingly we’re learning that idiosyncratic differences in the twins’ environments and their experiences can contribute to their differences.
‘Perhaps one twin has colic and cries more when he is young, and perhaps he is picked up more as a consequence, and perhaps this experience slightly changes his interactions with people.
‘Or perhaps one twin is ill on the first day of nursery and so starts a day later than the other, and perhaps he then has a different keyworker who prefers having children do one activity over another.
‘These tiny differences can have an impact on the differences between them over time.’