The Fourth Trimester
Pregnancy and childbirth are full of uncertainties and surprises, especially if it's your first. Even so, you’re well prepared: you’ve read the books, you’ve attended the appointments, signed up to the antenatal classes, done your research and you’re aware that pregnancy usually lasts 9 months. People keep referring to what should and shouldn’t be happening in each trimester: ‘You’ll stop feeling so exhausted by the end of the first trimester’, they say. ‘You’ll suddenly have loads of energy back in your second trimester’, they say... Okay, so it doesn’t always fit neatly into those timescales, but roughly speaking you know what to expect and when. Or do you? Why do you keep hearing about a fourth trimester then? We all did Maths at school; you are fairly sure ‘tri’ means ‘three’, so what’s all this talk of a fourth?
The healthcare system is great for supporting pregnant women through regular appointments, blood tests, blood pressure monitoring, urine screening, scans, growth monitoring and many other services. Everything is, quite rightly, geared towards ensuring a healthy pregnancy and a positive birth experience. After baby arrives, there are weigh-ins, many, many checks and tests are performed, clinics attended to monitor baby’s feeding and development. But what about the mother? Sure, midwives and health visitors are supportive, asking how you are, checking you over physically in the days after birth, but once they are satisfied baby is thriving, you are discharged from their service. Then what?
Welcome to The Fourth Trimester...
The fourth trimester is the period of time between birth and when the baby is 12 weeks old - It can be quite an eye-opener! There is relatively little support for new parents. Before you become a parent, you have a vague notion that looking after a newborn baby isn’t easy, but nothing prepares you for this! We’re constantly bombarded by positive imagery surrounding early parenthood: adverts showing a contented baby snoring gently in his crib, while his beautiful parents (with not a hair out of place) look on adoringly. Instagram is relentlessly badgering you with images of new parents walking in the park, hand-in-hand, with baby sleeping in a sling. Facebook tells us parents of newborns live in spotless show-houses ‘living their best life’. Everyone looks happy. It can’t be that hard, can it? Well, yes, it can. And this is normal! I am going to share with you some tips and insights from first time parents that I wish I’d had when I was a first-time mum:
1. Babies are born too early! That’s right, for the first 12 weeks, the human baby is essentially still a foetus. Disgruntled at having been thrust into a bright, cold atmosphere full of scary noises, the newborn misses the warmth and security of the womb where she was cosy and never hungry and could only hear her mother’s heartbeat and muffled noises from the outside world. This takes some getting used to.
2. Newborn babies don’t like to be put down. In the fourth trimester babies haven’t yet figured out that they are a separate entity from their mother. They want to be physically tied to you at all times and don’t they let you know about it! You will have some days when you can’t put them down at all. Please know that this is normal newborn behaviour and don’t put any pressure on yourself to get anything done. Just remember that you can’t spoil a newborn. Their wants and needs are pretty much the same thing at this age and being held is just as much a need as being fed. They aren’t capable of manipulation, despite what you may have been told. They won’t learn to cry more to get what they want if you respond to their needs. They don’t know what they want any more than they know where their own hands are! This stage is tough. Let people help you. Take shifts with your partner, or draft in family and friends so you can have a break.
3. Forget housework. It is nigh-on impossible to keep up with household chores when you have a newborn, so don’t even try and don’t feel bad about it. If you don’t get dressed out of your pyjamas until teatime some days, fine. Give yourself a break. You’re having to adjust to the brutal regime of the sudden 24-7 care of a tiny, unreasonable, noisy human who won’t let you put him down! This is what family and friends are there for. Instead of rushing around tidying and making tea while your visitors cuddle the baby, get them to do it. They’ll be happy to help.
4. Feeding can be hard. Whether you breastfeed or bottle feed, you are learning a brand-new skill with all sorts of rules, advice and guidelines to follow. If you do breastfeed, even if you take to it really well, it is still hard work at times and everybody out there finds some element of it challenging at some point. Thankfully there are lots of support groups for feeding available across the country. Ask your midwife about what’s available in your area.
5. Follow your instincts. Yes, babies cry a lot. According to research, newborn crying tends to peak around week six. What you’ll find though, is that you can take averages like this with a sizeable pinch of salt. Every baby is different, and you will very quickly come to know what is normal for your baby. You might get fobbed off by healthcare professionals telling you ‘babies cry’, which is true, but nothing should trump your instincts. You know your baby best of all.
6. It’s okay not to be okay. We’re told that parenthood is the most natural thing in the world. It isn’t. There’s no training for this! We learn on the job. You might think that others are finding it easier than you because they look like they are coping well and seem more put-together. I can guarantee you they will be thinking the exact same thing about you. Talk to your friends, your family, your partner. Get out to baby groups, for walks, for coffee. You are not alone, although this stage is all-consuming and gruelling when you are in it. It will not last forever. I promise!
Tips from our Mums, Including Coronation Street and Dancing on Ice Star Hayley Tammadon
The Current Climate
So, we are currently in the midst of strange and unprecedented times. A lot of advice offered to new parents during the difficult fourth trimester is not appropriate at the moment. But in the absence of baby groups, meeting friends for coffee and seeing family face-to-face, it is important that you keep in touch with your support network and know that you can access medical help if you need it. Don’t be afraid to contact your GP or your midwife if you have any concerns about your baby or about your own health or wellbeing, especially if you are recovering from a traumatic or difficult birth.
There is a variety of resources available online if you need any advice:
Bottle feeding advice: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/pregnancy-and-baby/bottle-feeding-advice/
Maternal mental health and wellbeing: https://www.pandasfoundation.org.uk