Yes you read it right, the fourth trimester! Everyone knows that pregnancy is made up of three trimesters. The first trimester where you may want to hurl when talking about, looking at or attempting to eat food either in the morning, noon or night or if you’re really unlucky, all three. Then there’s that bit in the middle where your bump starts to show, you feel those fluttery movements for the first time and you get to make the decision whether to find out what sex the baby is or to wait for a surprise when the birth happens. Then finally the third trimester where most people including strangers will suddenly want to know the ins and outs of your plans. You know the kind of thing I’m referring to – “Where you’re going to have the baby?”, “Do you plan to breastfeed?”, “Do you know what you’re having?”, “Have you got a name?”, “Is the baby’s room ready?”, ” Have you got everything?”.
The three trimesters we’re all familiar with are related to pregnancy, those 40 weeks that a woman carries her child with her everywhere. Nine months of uninterrupted togetherness; being one and the same, sharing every part of our lives, feeling each other’s movements. For three-quarters of a year we are never alone, we share, bond with and nurture our bodies and our babies to keep them safe, warm and protected, so they and we feel secure.
The fourth trimester refers to the first few months following birth. For first time mums especially, this is usually the period they feel the most insecure, but also the most judged. We are bombarded with conflicting information from professionals, health visitors, midwives, “self-proclaimed baby experts” and other mothers and are asked questions like “Is he a good eater?”, “Is he sleeping well?”, or my personal favourite, “Is he good?”. It’s no wonder we feel under scrutiny.
The first few months are called the fourth trimester for a reason. After being dependant on their mother for 9 months, there has to be a period of adjustment. Before birth all a baby is aware of is weightlessness, in warm, soft and dark surroundings, the muffled sound of voices (mostly mums, possibly dads or grandparents), always with the mothers constant heart beat for company. Being born into a bright, loud, cold world with scratchy, itchy materials is a massive change and one that is regularly underestimated.
The mother also has to adjust to her baby being separate from her own body. Looking after your baby when pregnant can be quite simple, avoid certain foods/alcohol and keep a relatively healthy diet; you can’t really go wrong. After birth there’s all sorts of things for mothers to fret about. It’s no wonder we might have a feeling of wanting to carry baby everywhere, it’s what you’re both used to and it’s a very natural way to feel!
The fourth trimester is about meeting your baby’s needs, aiding their and your adjustment to life on the outside. Think of it as a transition from womb to world. There are a few ways in which to help this:
DO AS LITTLE AS POSSIBLE
This is possibly the only time you can say ‘NO!’ to the hoovering, washing up, food shopping, cooking, clothes washing and get away with it. If you want visitors, why not ask them to bring dinner, make their own tea when they arrive and make you one while they’re at it! After all, you are taking care of a new baby, so you need taking care of in turn. This is the time to call in those friendly favours and your partner to pick up the slack.
Carrying baby in a sling, will provide a feeling of comfort and closeness for baby, (a soft wrap sling is great for the early weeks). Being able to hear the heartbeat of the wearer will feel like a home from home for a newborn. With the help of a sling you can carry little one and watch tv, read a book, use the bathroom, eat dinner, it’s a win win.
For mothers, holding your baby releases the love hormone oxytocin into both your systems. This, and skin to skin contact will aid the bonding process for you both.
LISTEN AND WATCH FOR YOUR BABY’S CUES
As we’ve written about HERE, Dunstan’s Baby Language is a must have tool for any parent. You’re baby is trying to communicate with you, albeit with a different vocabulary.
Listen and watch your baby to see if you can pick up on their early signs, this will help lessen fussy and crying periods. Remember, once baby is crying it’s already too late, you’ve missed the cues and their attempt to communicate. The more you study them, the more you’ll learn and hopefully the easier your adjustment will be.
FEED ON DEMAND
Babies, like adults, can get thirsty as well as hungry. Do not worry yourself with unrealistic expectations of your baby feeding a set amount at set intervals. New babies will eat as much or as little as they want at any time of the day or night. I’m sure you do not eat the same amount of food at the same times of day, everyday; so you should not expect your baby to.
Aiming to put baby onto a feeding schedule too early will teach little one to eat when not hungry; promoting bad eating habits, that have the potential to be carried into later in life.
AID BABY WITH SLEEP
Quite a few of us have heard the ‘making a rod for your own back’ speech. This is especially given to mums who let their baby’s fall asleep at the breast and/or hold them to sleep.
Putting a baby down on their own to sleep is an unrealistic expectation, especially in the early months. Babies learn new skills with our help, love and support, this includes sleep and self settling.
SLEEP is an acquired skill and just like walking takes time, help and guidance. You would not expect your child to walk, without first rolling over, sitting unaided, crawling (sometimes backwards first), standing, walking holding furniture, to finally walking alone; albeit with many trips, stumbles and falls. Sleep is a skill that is acquired and will take time and patience to help them master, accompanied by “trips and falls” (the well known 4 month sleep regression is one).
To SELF SETTLE, a baby must first learn this skill. A great way of doing this is to hold and soothe your baby to sleep. Humming, swaying, breast feeding, talking gently or simply sitting still, in a relaxed state will teach your baby that to sleep we must be relaxed and content. The feeling of being close to someone should make for a longer more peaceful sleep for baby.
The ‘rod for your own back’ brigade give mums a false impression that if they hold baby while he/she sleeps they run the risk of baby being clingy and needy. This kind of advice is not helpful nor realistic to the baby’s needs.
Advising mums to settle baby down on their own to sleep, putting baby into eating routines and generally putting space between mother and child is more likely to create a needy baby as they feel their most basic needs are not already met.
FOLLOW YOUR INSTINCTS
For a child to be independent, they must first be dependant on their mother to meet their needs. This allows the baby to later inspect and explore the world from the safety of knowing their mother will meet his needs emotionally and physically, as and when he needs it.
Do not be afraid of following your heart, no matter what others think, YOU know what is best for your child. If it means standing out from the crowd then so be it. A lot of mothers are now are encouraged to not be instinctual; but instead to follow the crowd, trying out sleeping routines, feeding schedules etc, all in the hope of achieving ‘good baby’ status.
You may not always feel like you’re getting it right, but if you follow your instincts and remain objective about your choices then you’re mostly there.
Keep in mind that this period of adjustment is far more upsetting for baby then it is for you. You have the ability to ask for human contact if you’re feeling scared, able to express your upset and to ask for comfort if needed, make yourself something to eat or drink or take something for trapped wind. You know this world, the sights, sounds and smells. You have control of your body and know the sensations you feel. Your baby does not, and has limited ways of communicating.
So while mums, dads and babies go through this period of adjustment, encourage them to embrace the fourth trimester, not go against it. Hold baby if they want to, whether the baby is sleeping or not. Instead of showing your disapproval of bed sharing, help them find the necessary information to ensure they do it safely.
Encouraging parents to go against their instincts makes more nervous, anxious, less confident parents. Instead, encourage her mothering instincts and provide her with the same love and support she is trying to nurture her baby with. We all deserve the opportunity to become the best parents we can be to our children; with the right support along the way, we all stand a fighting chance.