Notes from the Trenches of the Fourth Trimester

fourth trimester

I would like to talk about the “fourth trimester,” or the first 12 weeks of a newborn’s life. This is a time of transition, for both parents and the baby. The concept is this: human babies have a short gestation period, compared to other mammals – due to our large head size, we’re born early, before we’re really ready, developmentally. Ideally, we’d stay in utero about three more months (but every woman reading this right now is SO GLAD that’s not the case). Taking this into account, if we treat newborns as if they were still in utero for the “fourth trimester,” we can help ease their transition earthside.

The fourth trimester is also a time of adjustment for parents – after all, now we’re tasked with keeping this tiny human alive, fed, and happy, usually on very little sleep. Add this to the physical healing that takes place after birth, and it’s no wonder the first three months are challenging! So what’s it really like during the first 12 weeks, behind the happy Facebook updates and #blessed hashtags? Read on.

I’m in the thick of this now – my son will be 7 weeks old soon, and for the first 3 weeks, I barely slept, since he would only sleep on me, on his stomach. It wasn’t until I got a Rock n’ Play and started to swaddle him with the Velcro swaddles, as well as use a white noise app on my phone, that he started sleeping by himself at night, next to my bed. This all made sense to me when I read that newborns hate to be put down, especially during the fourth trimester. Think about it – for the past 40 weeks, they’ve been ensconced in your womb, softly cradled by amniotic fluid, held by your uterus, and gently rocked while you move. Being thrust into a cold, open space and being put down in a crib or bassinet alone just doesn’t feel like home! No wonder infants don’t want to leave your arms. Along those lines, many people think sweet lullabies will help put a baby to sleep – and for some, they might – but newborns are used to a cacophony of noises from being in your uterus. Your heartbeat, the blood moving through your body, your digestive system, and outside noises. White noise, or things like a hairdryer or vacuum cleaner, actually calm many babies. When you can’t hold them, swaddling helps newborns feel more secure. It also keeps them from waking themselves up when their startle reflex occurs during sleep. Just make sure you stop swaddling once they can roll over on their own.

That’s all well and good for nighttime, but what about during the day? Babywearing keeps your baby near you, comforts them, and still lets you get housework, errands, or other work done. A ring sling, wrap, or carrier can do wonders in calming a baby, not to mention it promotes bonding. Babywearing has also been shown to improve breastfeeding rates, promote weight gain, and lower stress levels of the baby. Being a single mom, I’ve used a wrap many times to calm my son in order to finish getting dressed, get the mail, or work on the computer.

Newborns eat. A lot. Like every two hours – and that’s starting from the beginning of the last feeding. If a nursing session lasts 45 minutes, you likely have a little more than an hour before your baby starts to get hungry again. I’ll be completely honest: especially during a growth spurt, I feel like I am just a milk machine. Nursing – and formula feeding – can be time consuming, especially when your fussy baby just wants some comfort, and not a whole feed. This is okay. Just remember to breathe, keep your phone charged, stay hydrated, and have snacks nearby that you can eat with one hand. Some of my favorites include granola bars, grapes, pretzels, carrots, and fruit snacks. If your nipples are cracked or sore from all that nursing or pumping, try lanolin or nipple cream – I tend to use the nipple cream from Motherlove, or the Natural Nipple Butter from Earth Mama Angel Baby.

The first 12 weeks can also be rough for moms. Hormones are fluctuating, you’re sleep deprived, physically sore, and for many women, new motherhood can be isolating. You’re in the house most of the day, lucky if you can grab a shower, a hot meal, or brush your teeth, and you have this tiny creature that’s demanding 110% from you. Baby blues and mood disorders happen, and they’re nothing to be ashamed of. If you need some time to yourself to cry or take a breather, that’s okay. Place your baby in the crib or strap her in the swing for 5 minutes. Have a friend or family member come over and watch the baby while you run to Starbucks or Target, or even just take a walk or a drive.

Postpartum Mood Adjustment

This is hard stuff – for both you and baby. When you’re up at 3am for a never-ending nursing session, dealing with yet another diaper blowout at 6am, or realizing that it’s after noon and you’re still in your pajamas, haven’t eaten yet, and your morning coffee is cold, it can seem pretty bleak. Reach out to friends and family, even if it’s just for a quick call. That connection will help reassure you that this fourth trimester is just temporary. Does it always work? No, but more often than not, it lessens the isolation and things don’t feel as hard when you know people are supporting you and encouraging you. It’s easy to feel like your life has shrunk to just this little person – maintaining connections with others reminds you that your world is quite big. If you find your sadness or anxiety is interfering with everyday life and functioning, call your midwife or a mental health professional. You’ve just had a huge life change, and you don’t have to adjust to this by yourself.

What was the fourth trimester like for you, and what are some tips for getting through it?

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