How to navigate the fourth trimester and adjust to your new life as a parent.
By Dawn Tame
You’ve made it through the first, second and third trimesters of pregnancy, have given birth to your baby, and now you’re hopefully feeling empowered (if exhausted), with your newborn safe and secure in your arms. But what is this ‘fourth trimester’ you keep hearing about?
We caught up with Dawn Tame, maternity nurse and newborn support worker at myTamarin, to find out what the fourth trimester is – and why it’s a crucial time of development for both your newborn, and for you as a parent:
What is the fourth trimester?
The fourth trimester refers to the first three months of a baby’s life. It’s the period in which both the baby and the parents go through significant development and adjustment, as they learn about each other.
In theory, you could say the fourth trimester is the period in which the baby thinks it’s still in the uterus, when in fact it’s not. This means baby is not yet totally prepared for their entrance into the world, and therefore requires responsive action to their cues and emotions, while they adapt to life outside the uterus.
Why is the fourth trimester a key time?
The fourth trimester is the period in which babies try to make sense of their new world. They’ve been snugly tucked up inside mum for nine months – the temperature was consistent, and light and sound were both muted. Suddenly, they’ve been catapulted into a world where there’s light, noise, smell and touch – all sorts of external stimuli. It’s quite overwhelming for babies.
The world becomes baby-centric in the fourth trimester, so it’s important to build a compromise between pre and post-baby life.
For mum (and dad), it’s the period in which they learn to become sensitive to the needs of their baby, and it’s also the time that represents the start of their parenting journey. You need to be sensitive to the dynamic of your family life and its changes, whether that’s going from being a carefree couple, or introducing new siblings to the home.
Additionally, many women today come from professional backgrounds, with a lot of responsibility and control, and the changes that come with having a baby can feel quite disempowering. The world can become quite baby-centric in the fourth trimester, so it’s important to build a compromise between a pre and post-baby life.
Life outside the uterus – helping baby adjust
Your baby is going from a pretty compact, stable environment in its mother’s womb, to suddenly being thrust into a world of sensory overload. You’ll notice a “startle reflex” in babies, when they suddenly thrust their arms out into all this space! They can be hard to settle as a result. Swaddling can really help here – your midwife, maternity nurse or health visitor can advise you on the best way to do this.
Babies are not born with the ability to distinguish night from day, so you need to help them recognise this.
Lots of skin-to-skin contact is crucial during this time, too – being close to you and being able to hear your heart beat is soothing for baby, and research shows this kind of contact can help to regulate their heart rate. Babywearing, by using a sling, is also a good way to settle baby, by keeping them close to you.
Babies need to learn experientially about what happens to them in this new world and, as with many other new experiences, they need to be lovingly guided into it. Accordingly, they are not born with the ability to distinguish night from day, so you need to help them recognise this by creating a different environment for each. For example, for night time feeds, ensure they are prepared for bedtime and the last evening feed is in a quieter, darker room, to help them transition from a busy daytime to sleep.
Newborn routine – yes or no?
When it comes to developing a routine for baby, for the first eight weeks at least, parents shouldn’t put pressure on themselves or set their expectations too high. Instead, the fourth trimester is the time to focus on the following:
- Getting used to being a parent
- Looking after yourself
- Eating regular meals
- Resting when the babytakes a nap
- Recovering from the delivery, being gentle with yourself
- Not trying to get back into the swing of your busy life too soon
As a new parent, you’re also learning about your baby, as he or she adjusts and learns what to expect, too. However, towards the end of this period, if it feels right for your family, it can be a good idea to start laying the foundations for some very basic kind of routine.
❤️ Preparing for bed
Two common misconceptions among new parents are that babies can distinguish between night and day, and babies automatically know how to sleep. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if this was the case? But, as any parent will tell you, after you’ve had your first baby you’ll quickly come to realise that it isn’t. So, in the fourth trimester, you can start to gently teach your baby these important life lessons!
To help your baby prepare for nighttime, begin a routine towards late afternoon. This could be a feed and a gentle bath, followed by another quiet feed away from the outside world and all its distractions.
❤️ The baby sleep cycle
Babies have a sleep cycle of around 45 minutes. The first half is deep sleep, or ‘quiet sleep’, which then moves into an active sleep stage. The transition between the two can often result in baby waking at around the 20-minute mark. If you wish, you can teach them to fall back to sleep by patting them gently, rather than cradling them or feeding them.
If you’re breastfeeding, night waking is normal, as babies’ tummies are small and need regular topping up. Skin-to-skin contact in the early weeks is also essential, and it can also be a good idea to allow regular sleeps in a crib. Most of all, focus on reading your baby, not a book, as every parenting experience is unique.
❤️ Balance is key
Many parents start out with a particular view of what routine might look like, only to throw it all out of the window when the baby arrives. A routine will be different for every family and every family dynamic, so settling into this over time is vital. Balance is key. For some families, no routine is routine; for others, gentle routines, such as day versus night, helps to maintain equilibrium.
The fourth trimester challenges
There is no blueprint for how or what to feel during the fourth trimester, and no wrong or right either. In the modern world, we often experience a tension between instinct and 21st-century living (for example, the internet and networking groups), which can often offer conflicting, confusing advice. I would encourage new mums to take time to learn their own parenting style, and not get too caught up in the information overload that is out there.
New baby emotional support
For many modern, working women, the contrast between switching from a highly organised routine in a career to the whirlwind of sleep-deprived chaos that is parenthood can be overwhelming, and may feel disempowering.
Ensuring you have a great support network of friends, family and even professional help is not an admission of defeat, but a sign of your greatest strength. It really does take a village! Don’t be afraid to ask for help or advice from other mums, or from professionals, such as your midwife, health visitor or childcare services.
Further help and support
For additional support adjusting to your new life as a parent, try one of the following resources:
- NCT: a charity offering support to new mums.
- APNI: support for mums suffering from post-natal illness.
- Mind: support for new mums to manage and dispel the many myths of motherhood.
- Mothers For Mothers: support, advice, info and a listening ear for any worries or concerns from real mums.