The fourth trimester. What is it? Is it a real thing? What is the truth about this theory of the missing fourth trimester of pregnancy, anyway? Why should Ia new mom care about the fourth trimester?
I'll tell you.
Babies don't keep. When we “have a baby” we don't keep a baby do we? With the anticipation of bringing home a new member to our family, we buy the diapers, paint the nursery, and put together the crib in preparation for this massive change in our lives but we forget how supremely short this time will be. During the first three trimesters of pregnancy we can't wait for the next stage. But when the time comes, we blow by the fourth trimester like…well, like it doesn't even exist.
During the first few weeks after my son was born, I swore the sleepless nights and constant breastfeeding would kill me before it ever ended. Looking back a short year and a half later I completely miss it. Is that insane or what? Women go through the toughest, most grueling, painful, and possibly traumatizing experience of their lives and then they want to do it again…and possibly again (and again?). Crazy! I think we crave that newborn stage because it flies by in the blink of an eye when we are consumed by how hard it is instead of remembering how important it is.
You only get to love on your very own tiny bundle of newborn joy for a very limited time in your entire life. It's so hard that while we are deep in the thick of it, sometimes we just can't wait to get out. We anticipate the end right from the start and it's tragic. The fourth trimester can be a beautiful thing through all of the difficult trials that it tests you with.
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The Trimesters of Pregnancy
How long is a typical healthy pregnancy? 40 weeks, aka 9 months. These nine months are broken up into three parts- The First, Second, and Third trimesters. Tri – meaning three. Pregnancy is divided up evenly into these perfect little trimesters so that we kind of know what to expect out of each of them.
For the most part the first trimester gets a bad rep because it's when you feel the most nauseated. It's known for the “morning” sickness, the fatigue, and the fragility of your brand new pregnancy. You make sure you take your prenatal vitamins and you try your best to keep the pregnancy a secret from most of the world because we know that the pregnancy isn't quite safe until the second trimester.
You nurture yourself and protect your pregnancy and hope and pray that your baby is healthy but you have no idea what's going on in there because you can't see (without ultrasound of course) or feel anything yet. But the truth behind the first trimester is that most of babies development happens during this short time. By the end of your first trimester you have a fully formed baby that has developed all essential organs and put them in their place. They just need to grow and develop their function! Is that the most incredible thing you've ever heard, or what?
The second trimester has the best reputation. You feel good for the most part. In these weeks you start feeling tiny baby movements, most of the time the morning sickness subsides, and you start to actually look pregnant instead of just bloated. You get to see your baby fully formed on ultrasound and you can choose to find out the gender of our baby in this trimester.
Yet still, you are keenly aware that your baby needs you more than ever. Your baby is extremely early and for most of the second trimester, isn't even viable outside of the womb. You know that your job is to grow and protect our baby in every way.
The third trimester is probably the most exciting, isn't it? It's got the name for being the hardest trimester because you get big and uncomfortable. You probably have some major heartburn, pelvic pressure, Braxton Hicks contractions, baby kicks up in the ribs (and bladder), and then eventually labor!
Still, you continue do your best to be patient because we know that if our baby comes too early, they will have struggles that you don't want for your precious new baby. You want to keep that baby inside for as long as he or she needs in order to be as healthy as possible. At this point, mothers gain some serious super-human strength to withstand the end of pregnancy and wait for their baby to come.
The Final Trimester Comes Unexpected
Looking forward to having a new baby, most of our thoughts go to how cute our baby will be, how sweet the cuddles will be, and how much love we will feel. All of those things are real and exciting, but it would do us some good if people would talk about more than just the exciting parts of the final “trimester”.
I think that the problem starts with the unknown. What we get isn't quite what we expect sometimes. People warned us about the tough parts of pregnancy and the pain of labor but no one talks about having a new baby as being the most physically and mentally straining time of all.
The baby comes and we quickly get overwhelmed, frustrated, and anxious when things are harder than what we could have ever imagined.
As new moms, we prepped and prepared and made a million decisions in advance. We expected to know exactly how we would feel and how it would all pan out but when reality hits, it causes a major case of the “new mom doubts”.
In order to not become wrapped up in “when will this part end?” or “why isn't my baby sleeping yet” or “why is breastfeeding still so hard?”, we really need to be realistic about what we call “The Fourth Trimester”.
What is The Fourth Trimester?
The fourth trimester is the first three months after giving birth. Your tiny little baby is brand new and the only experiences he knows is being attached to you. During this time, everything that your baby is experiencing is still brand new and uncomfortable.
During this time, your baby needs you as much as he needed you during your first three trimesters of pregnancy. He still needs near-constant nutrition, warmth of your body, and comfort from the only person he truly knows.
Human babies are born dramatically more premature than any other animal on earth. They aren't independent in any way and at this time, they can't be expected to be. These three months are important to keep your baby close and provide them with the attention and comfort that they require to develop optimally. At this time your baby cannot be spoiled and will thrive because of all of the love that you provide.
What To Expect Of The Fourth Trimester
Take it for what it is and not what you think it should be. Your baby needs you to ease him into the world gently and comfort him as you have for his entire life thus far. Let him get to used to the harsh environment that he has been forced into before you try to train him to be something that the world is telling you he should be.
If you release your unrealistic expectations for you and your baby, you will find that it is much easier to be content with what your baby is accomplishing on their own without force and at a natural pace.
Let Go Of Unrealistic Expectations
Let go of the idea that your baby can or should sleep through the night at six weeks, 8 weeks, 12 weeks, whatever those other moms are saying they did with their babies. Just because they say it happened doesn't mean that it did, it absolutely doesn't mean that it was easy for mom OR baby, and it definitely doesn't meant that you should do it too.
Let go of the idea that your baby should be feeding on a clock. If you keep a timer or a log this early on, just remember that it is a loose guideline for safety reasons (to make sure that your baby is getting enough to eat and having enough dirty diapers), and so that you can develop a routine based on what he is already doing. A log of feeds should not be used to schedule your baby's hunger.
Lastly, Let go of any expectations you have about the decisions you made prior to becoming a mother. If you planned on putting your baby in the bassinet right next to the bed but it just isn't working, be O.K with other options. If you planned to never introduce a pacifier, but your baby is really fussy all of the time and you just want one car-ride in silence, know that straying away from your original plan is O.K. I could go on for days, but I'll spare you.
Why The Fourth Trimester Is Important
Now, the baby is here and you enter the forgotten and neglected fourth trimester.
I know, when you first hear about the fourth trimester, it doesn't make sense. Like I mentioned earlier, Tri means three. There can't be four trimesters, blah blah blah. Well, that's where we've gone wrong.
Although you are no longer pregnant, instead you are growing a human outside of your body for the last three months. Think of this final “trimester” as an extension of your pregnancy when your baby needs you just as much but is learning to transition into the world.
Baby Needs The Fourth Trimester
As mothers, we have prepared for the day that our baby comes into the world to meet us and we anticipated the struggle. But for our baby, the whole experience comes as quite a shock. Your baby didn't have a chance to prepare for what life was going to be like outside of his comfortable, warm home where he was never hungry or alone.
It's your job now to help your baby transition. Your baby was rocked to sleep every day as you walked around with him in your womb. He was lulled to sleep by the lullaby of your heart and lungs. Our babies are held tight by their mamas and have no idea what it means to be alone, cold, or hungry prior to birth.
The Fourth Trimester Is As Essential As Any Other Trimester Of Pregnancy
Each trimester has it's own purpose. Your baby develops something new at every stage and this one is no different. Once your baby is born he is still growing, learning, developing, and adapting. Allow it to happen as you did when you were pregnant with him. You can treat this time as you would any other stage of pregnancy.
By the end of this final trimester, your baby will be adapted. He will be used to what night and day means, will be accustomed to the environment, and will understand hunger. By the end of this hard, yet short phase, you will be able to breathe a sigh of relief. Just trust me.
You wouldn't try to end the pregnancy early just because it's harder than you expected would you? You wouldn't want to have a pre-term baby just because you were uncomfortable or couldn't sleep at night because he was constantly kicking your ribs and making you pee a million times a night, would you? No, you wouldn't.
You kept that baby inside through the nausea, the heartburn, the tossing and turning at night, the ligament pain, the back pain, the swollen feet, and the waddling. You've done SO MUCH for your baby already. Don't give up now.
Life Outside The Womb Is A Huge Adjustment
We shouldn't be expecting these tiny people to come out and just accept being separated from their home, have multiple hours without nutrition, and sleep without being held as they have been for their entire life so far. It's almost barbaric to even think that way. Listen, your baby will sleep alone, they will go hours without eating, and they will be happy without being held. But my goodness, give it time.
The fourth trimester is not a time to worry about bad habits or spoiling your baby. Let the poor thing adjust and please, let yourself adjust to being a new mommy (or a new mommy again). Neither of you need the pressure to get to the finish line before you're ready.
Your Baby Needs Sleep
This sounds crazy, but remember to allow your baby to sleep. Sometimes it really is our fault when our babies don't sleep. At first, I think that maybe I should have given my baby more opportunities to sleep. I didn't really know what a newborn routine should look like and I didn't know how much awake time was appropriate. Not to mention, I picked him up or moved any time he made a peep. I thought he was constantly calling out for me, but in reality he was probably making normal newborn sleep noises.
Also, at first, I just wanted to interact with my new baby so much that I kept him awake. The same went with visitors. I had a lot going on for those first few weeks. People were coming over, he had doctors appointments, I wanted to get out of the house, etc. Logan was awake too much and then he became over-tired.
You should start to introduce some good habits and create a recognizable routine but absolutely do not worry about or try to avoid the “bad” habits that people warn you about. Please, for the sake of rest, nurse to sleep, rock to sleep, sing to sleep, use white noise, do all of the things. Because if your baby doesn't sleep, he won't sleep. Does that make sense? Once your baby is over-tired, it is a hard thing to escape.
- Related Read: How To Make Life With A Baby E.A.S.Y
- Related Read: How To Get Your Baby To Sleep Well Right From The Start
- Related Read: 9 Simple and Easy Ways To Start Weaning Your Baby: A Guide To More Than Just Breastfeeding
Your Baby Needs To Eat
When they are brand new, they are used to never being hungry. Do you really think that a baby who has never been hungry before is going to be happy with being hungry for any amount of time just to fit to your schedule? If so, you are in for a rude awakening (quite literally).
After your baby is born, his needs don't magically change into something reasonable or acceptable to you. Their needs will remain similar to their needs in the womb. Your baby is trying to get the things that he's always gotten from you. He wants his life outside of the womb to closely resemble life inside the womb–getting fed around the clock.
Breast Milk Is Perfect For The Fourth Trimester
Breastfeeding during this newborn period will make the transition easier for both you and your baby. It might not seem like it at first, but breastfeeding can actually get you more sleep if you allow it to. No bottles to prepare or wash, no formula to buy, you don't even have to get out of bed to feed your baby. If you're co-sleeping, you don't even have to sit up to feed your baby!
Breastfeeding is killing two birds with one stone. Your baby is getting the nutrition that was literally created to be perfect for him while also getting the closeness of skin to skin contact that he desperately craves during this stage.
Feeding on demand allows for you to stop watching the clock, stop setting timers, and relax. When it comes to breastfeeding, there is a very wide range of normal. Your baby might want to eat constantly for hours or might go three hours without a feed. He might stay latched for 45 minutes or maybe only 10. If you let your baby take the lead and you are having enough wet and dirty diapers, and your baby is gaining weight, then feeding your baby will be a lot less stressful than when you are trying to control it.
Breastfeeding gives you freedom. If you are able and willing to breastfeed, girl, do it.
- Related Read: Breastfeeding 101: How To Feed Your Newborn
The Fourth Trimester Is For Mom Too
Rapid recovery puts so much pressure on mom right after having a baby. We have enough pressure on us already. We have to do things like, I don't know, keep our family alive and things like that. Riiiight? We have more important things to think about than if our house looks spotless or if we don't have our pre-baby body back 6 weeks after giving birth.
Slow down, give yourself a much-needed break, and understand that the fourth trimester is about you too. Your body needs time to recover from pregnancy AND delivery. Pregnancy in and of itself is tough on your body but then comes delivery. You lose a ton of fluid, you lose blood and your uterus has to shrink down from the size of a watermelon to the size of an orange.
A midwife that I know and trust always tells her patients something I love. “No cooking, no cleaning, no laundry for two weeks”. You don't have to be on bedrest, but listen. Rest. Please. Lie down and let your loved ones help you. Take it easy for a couple of weeks while your body heals and while you take on this new role as “mother”. With each and every child that we bring home, we have to re-adjust to life with this baby. Your body and your mind both need a chance to figure it all out.
Surrender To The Process
Be Easy On Yourself
Try to soak it all in and enjoy all of the little victories throughout the day. You're going to have days that seem all bad. You're going to have days that seem completely blissful. But most of your days are going to land somewhere in between where you have moments of incredible joy and moments of defeat and frustration. Try to fully embrace the good moments and brush off the bad because it will all be over in the blink of an eye.
No matter what advice you get or what help you accept from your friends, family or experts, it is going to take time. Don't be hard on yourself when these tricks that everyone swears by aren't working the moment you implement them. Be patient and each and every thing that you find difficult or impossible now, will become easier.
Be Easy On Your Baby
Rapid adaptation to this transitional period is hard and unrealistic for your baby. Your baby is going through a massive transition no matter how you plan to deal with it.
If you plan to put them in their crib or sleep next to them in bed, breastfeed or bottle feed, pacifier or no pacifier, your baby will have the same needs as any other baby: near constant nutrition, help getting to sleep, help staying asleep, and a ton of love. It is important for your baby's health and development that you respond to their cues and their cries and give them the attention and care that they crave.
We've never faulted the baby for the ailments of pregnancy have we? When we waddle around the house and can hardly bend to put our socks on, we accept that this is just a part of the process and it will come to an end at the expected and acceptable time.
If we could just have the same mentality when it comes to the fourth trimester, I think that we would have an easier time accepting the tough stuff and cherish the sweet stuff.
Don't Let It Slip Through Your Fingers
Hold your baby tight, kiss his sweet head, take a million pictures, and soak in all of his newborn sweetness because he's only a newborn once. If this is your first baby, your only baby, or your fourth baby, this part is always the same.
It flies by in a flash! Before we can say “stay little”, they are running around pulling the books off the shelves and refusing your kisses. Don't let this whole experience slip through your fingers. I know that it can be really tough sometimes and you can't help but wonder how long you'll be tired and covered in milk, but don't wish for it to be over because either way, it ends. You can't control it, so please just cherish it.
On another note…
I am aware that many women have to return to work before the fourth trimester is over. This is a misfortune that needs to be corrected. If this is something that you cannot avoid, I am sorry and my heart goes out to you.
I can't imagine how difficult it must be to leave your baby at home while you leave for work so early in his life. But don't fear. You can still do what you can while you can. Take those six weeks and cherish them. Don't fear the time that you have to go to work. You don't need to rush your baby just because the world is rushing you.