The Fourth Trimester

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photo credit: Birthing Beautiful Communities

When a newborn emerges from the womb, it leaves behind a warm, dark, and physically stimulating environment that includes the mother’s heartbeat, the sounds of children or other adult voices, and the rocking, jostling, and rhythmic steps of the mother moving about. Upon birth, a baby will turn toward the familiar sound of its mother’s voice. We teach new parents to lay the baby down in quiet rooms, away from noise and the hustle and bustle of life, away from the mother’s familiar heartbeat, but what if what they really need is more of what they experienced in the womb?

The concept of a fourth trimester was first communicated by British childbirth educator and author, Sheila Kitzinger, in 1975: “There is a fourth trimester to pregnancy, and we neglect it at our peril. It is a transitional period of approximately three months after birth, particularly marked after first babies, when many women are emotionally highly vulnerable, when they experience confusion and recurrent despair, and during which anxiety is normal and states of reactive depression commonplace.” And other anthropologists like Jean Liedloff, author of The Continuum Concept, have studied multiple cultures or indigenous populations, looking for answers for problems faced by mothers and babies during the fourth trimester and beyond.

The fourth trimester concept embraces the idea that human babies are born three to four months earlier than developmentally ready. With evolution, the human brain has grown larger, but the woman’s pelvis has not. Thus, babies are born when their skulls are approximately eleven centimeters and before they have the muscle control to hold up their heads or roll over.

A friend who recently had her first baby remarked that while she had probably over-prepared for the birth, she hadn’t prepared at all for the first three months. Women no longer live and work in the same environments; we don’t see parenting up close with our communities or do as much caring for younger children as we once did when families were larger and life was more communal. We’ve moved into the workplace, attending college at large numbers, and waiting until our thirties (on average) to have children.

The transition from baby-in-the-womb to baby in the room can be just as jarring for today’s new mother as for the baby.

Buzzwords and parenting trends come and go, but the needs of the baby and new mother remain constant. During the fourth trimester, the mother faces: changing hormones, physical and sometimes emotional recovery from the birth, an initial unusually heavy period, soreness, moodiness, sleep deprivation, feeding and caring challenges with the baby, and, frankly, a world turned topsy-turvy. First time mothers are adjusting to the fact that every decision they make—even slipping into the bathroom to shower—impacts another person. Essentially, her life is no longer focused on her own wants and desires. More than men, women’s lives are greatly disrupted and reshaped by the arrival of a child, especially in the first months after the baby’s birth.

Both mom and baby are thrust into a new world, requiring adjustments, time, and a steep learning curve. If it’s a first baby, the learning curve is steep, but even consecutive babies create a learning curve, given personality and developmental differences baby to baby.

didymos-baby-sling-baby-carrier-baby-brightThe concept of the fourth trimester helps during this vulnerable time of change—looking at the early months through the eyes of the newborn, with empathy, helps the new parents in terms of setting expectations and making decisions. For instance, babywearing, especially with cloth wraps, can soothe even the fussiest of babies. The baby returns to the familiar warmth, heartbeats, and movement of its mother in the wrap. Wrapped securely, mothers can grocery shop, take care of older children, walk around the house, prepare food, or rest on the couch while the baby naps in its familiar cocoon. Some physicians and development specialists recommend swaddling to achieve a similar sense of security, but it remains more controversial in terms of neurological and motor development, especially if done for extended periods of time. One of my favorite wraps is the Didymos, but there are many types and styles of wraps on the market today and a mother might find that different styles are better for certain situations. For instance, for a quick errand at the store, a ring style sling might be easier to use. And babywearing can be a lifesaver with colicky babies.

Looking through the lens of the fourth trimester, it’s easy to see why a baby might nurse at uneven intervals; in the womb, the baby received nutrition continuously and in synch with the baby’s development. In the same way, a baby will nurse more when it’s making big developmental leaps, cutting teeth, or going through a growth spurt—as well as when it’s upset, scared, or angry. The media (books, TV shows, movies) often portrays sleep as something to be managed, when in reality, the baby knows what it needs and the sooner the new mother (and father) accept a more flexible approach to feeding/nursing, the easier the fourth trimester becomes. Full nights of sleep WILL return, but to expect full nights of sleep when the baby is young is contrary to its needs and development.

In the meantime, what makes sleep easier? Many families find that co-sleeping or using a side basinet works well. If breastfeeding, the mother gets more sleep when the baby is close by. And regular sleep/arousal cycles are healthy for infants and decrease the risk of SIDS. Every baby will sleep on its own when it’s ready. Managing expectations about sleep is just as important as managing the baby’s care. Attitudes should match development, not external schedules or sleep rules. These guidelines for safe co-sleeping can be helpful. Never sleep with an infant if the accompanying parent(s) have been using drugs or alcohol, as they may impair instincts and awareness. Dr. McKenna, an anthropologist and infant sleep researcher, cautions against co-sleeping when the mother is unable to breastfeed. In that instance, having the infant in the room in the early days will allow the parents to respond quickly to the baby’s needs. To learn more, check out McKenna’s Behavioral Sleep Laboratory at Notre Dame.

More and more research, as well as community programs, is focused on the concept of the fourth trimester. The University of North Carolina has a team of investigators looking at ways to improve outcomes during the first months of motherhood and infancy. Mothers and babies need support during those tender first months and health professionals are beginning to realize the importance of timely health encounters to reduce the incidents of post-partum depression, breastfeeding problems, and other maternal health issues. As women, we no longer live communally, but we can create a sense of community and support with our care providers, support groups (La Leche League or new parent groups for example), extended family, and friends who are already mothers.

Midwives see the care of the mother from a holistic perspective. From pregnancy to birth to postpartum, the midwife educates and supports the mother. It’s just as important that a new mother reach out to her midwife or care provider when feeling overwhelmed or unsure. Like the baby, the new mother is going from a constant environment—one in which she did things a certain way—to a completely changed environment. Support from other seasoned mothers and from health providers can be crucial to moving successfully through the final trimester and first months of motherhood.

(Locally, check out the Premier Birth Center postpartum support group, which meets every month in Winchester).

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