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What is the fourth trimester?

You may or may not have heard of this. Most of us have heard of the first, second and third trimester during pregnancy. The fourth trimester is the period of time after birth, the first 3 months of baby’s life. This time can be a fairly overwhelming and exhausting time for new parents and baby.

Compared to the young of other mammals, human babies are physiologically underdeveloped at birth. So for example a foal can get up and walk after a few minutes of being born whereas a human baby looks to us for their survival. They are basically just a small creature trying to survive and they need us for everything.

In utero their every need is met and their world is constant. It’s dark, they’re held, they’re rocked and they have food whenever they need it. Sound is muffled, they can hear our heartbeat. Then suddenly they’re born, it’s loud, it’s bright, they’re not held all the time, they’re left along on hard surfaces, they’re dressed in clothes and often left on their own. And I think if we can understand it from their perspective then we can understand why they behave the way they do. They like to be held, they often sleep better when they’re held, they’re comforted. They like to feed often. They’re awake in the night lots, they aren’t able to ‘self soothe’. And all of that is normal.

Historically babies were carried in a sling and in other cultures still today that is normal. But here, we are keen to get babies into a routine and help them sleep through the night. You’re often given advice from well meaning friends and family about sleep training and “you’ll spoil your baby if they’re held too often, they need to learn to self soothe”. This kind of advice can be very unhelpful for new parents at a time when they’re feeling overwhelmed and exhausted and not able to think clearly.

So as new parents, if we can understand newborn behaviour and what is normal and what to expect it can help us in the fourth trimester to realise what is normal and not feel quite as overwhelmed and confused about everything. If we can manage our expectations of baby and have realistic expectations of how things may be; prepare for rest and bonding with baby, then it can hugely help both our physical and mental health. If we can learn to be responsive to our baby’s needs, then that can obviously help their physical and mental health as well.

Postnatal planning sessions can hugely benefit new parents. You can put a support network in place, understand newborn behaviour, realise you need to rest, know what to expect and plan for that. Nothing can fully prepare you for what it is really going to be like but if you can have some kind of plan in place and a postnatal doula to help you then it can feel a little less daunting when you’re in that period.

I think we put a lot of pressure on ourselves to bounce back and get things back to normal but that is fairly unrealistic during this time when it’s exhausting and you need to just bond and rest and take that time as a new family, a new little unit, to be together.

Doula carrying baby in sling
Fourth Trimester

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