'What I didn't know and wish someone had told me about'...The Fourth Trimester
by Martina Minarik
You might be thinking “the fourth trimester, what’s that?”. Perhaps you’ve heard other mums mention the term? Or you might even have come across it on the internet as you google possible explanations for your newborn’s constant crying and whining.
I’d never heard about “the fourth trimester” before I had children and even after my first baby was born it took about 10 weeks before I came across the term and closer to three years to fully understand what had been going on during those crucial first months. Here’s what I didn’t know and wish someone had told me about the fourth trimester.
“Fourth trimester” refers to the first three months after your baby is born. Pregnancy is essentially split into three lots of thirteen weeks - or roughly three three-month periods - and the term “fourth trimester” suggests that there is a fourth three-month period, which takes place outside your womb.
The first three months of your newborn’s life represent a period of immense physical and mental change for your baby. As well as developing, your baby is also having to adjust to the “outside world” with all its noises, lights, smells, sounds and sensations. Suddenly the familiar, warm, dark, muffled and snug womb has been replaced by a disconcerting cold and open space with bright lights, loud noises and strong smells. And whilst some babies adjust easily, others need A LOT of love, help and support to ease the transition.
When reality hits
When my husband and I decided to have children I had a niece and two nephews and a few friends with young children. I genuinely thought that I had a vague idea of what having a newborn involved. Mainly lack of sleep, lots of nappy changes, leaking boobs and some crying.
I was definitely NOT prepared for the amount of carrying and comforting that my daughter needed. For the first few weeks she would not let me put her down and would not be held by anyone other than me (not even her daddy!).
Going for long walks with my daughter in the carrier and letting her sleep in my arms after a feed worked really well. She would sleep for hours provided I didn’t try to put her down or break that steady walking pace. But I had to do it ALL the time…. I couldn’t get on with chores, go to a mum’s exercise class, push her in the buggy or leave her with the grandparents without her screaming blue murder. (I could just about manage a coffee date provided she fell asleep in my arms).
It wouldn’t have been so bad if I could have just accepted the situation, listened to my daughter and given in to what she needed. But I didn’t, because I had sky-high ambitions of being a super-woman who managed it all.
So I ploughed on with the activities and household jobs rather than give in and “declare failure” (which is how it felt at the time). But it was pretty obvious from all the crying that my daughter wasn’t feeling heard and tended to. Every day I left our mum-and-baby activities feeling upset and frustrated, and wondering why my child was the only one constantly crying and refusing to get onboard.
My absolute low point was a Friday afternoon when my daughter’s incessant crying had me in tears. I was frustrated that I couldn’t get anything done and I had been rocking my baby for 45 minutes without getting her to sleep. I felt I must be failing as a super-mum. After nine months of hosting another human being, part of me wanted my body back to myself - I didn’t want my baby clinging to it all day long - and the fact that I had no choice but to give in to her made me feel like I was constantly losing a battle. I remember thinking motherhood wasn’t for me and I just wanted to get away.
Not all newborns need the same level of support to transition into the outside world, of course. What I didn’t realise at the time was that my daughter found this transition difficult - I wish I could have accepted the situation and embraced the opportunity to carry her all day long. But in the madness of those first three months, I really struggled to give in to those needs.
I wasn't prepared for the amount of carrying and comforting that my daughter needed.
Getting through the fourth trimester
Ultimately what I have learnt is that your child needs to feel that you love, support and believe in him or her, in order to grow up confident and independent. In order to dare let go of you, venture off and explore, they need to know that you’re there.
If you find that your newborn wants to be carried a lot, screams within minutes of being put down (in the cot, buggy, bouncy chair or on the activity mat) and refuses to go to others, just try and picture the transition they have just made and how daunting the outside world must seem. Know that you are the most reassuring thing in the world to them. You have the best ability to make them feel safe and comforted and, as with most things child and parenting related, it’s just a phase. It might seem to last a long time but really it’s only a few weeks or months tops. The dishes and housework can wait. If they can’t, ask someone to help you. After all, you’re busy looking after a little human…!
Here are a few tips you can try if you think your newborn needs a little extra help and support during the fourth trimester:
- Give your baby lots of skin-to skin. Your warmth, smell, voice and heartbeat is familiar and thereby provides comfort
- Feed on demand. Whether you’re breastfeeding or bottle-feeding, feeding on demand will help reassure your baby that he or she is heard and looked after
- Wear your baby. Slings and baby carriers help imitate the rocking motion your baby experienced in your womb and makes him or her feel snug and comforted. Don’t give up if your baby doesn’t instantly love the sling or carrier. My daughter never liked being carried at home and screamed blue murder when we first strapped her into a carrier. Feet shuffling didn’t do it for her, but as long as we walked at a fast and steady pace the crying would stop and she would fall asleep within minutes. You might have to test out different methods and see what works for your baby
- You can also try swaddling. It can help babies sleep better by making them feel snug and contained, just like in the womb. But make sure you know how to swaddle safely.
During the first few months I spent hours carrying my daughter.
Did you enjoy this honest account? Why not read "What I didn't know and wish someone had told me about'...Motherhood and Finding Your Feet"?
Martina is a mum of two and the founder of NINE+QUARTER, a brand new range of maternity and nursing clothes.