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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Natural Ways to Boost the Pregnant Immune System

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Pregnant women are more at risk for acquiring infection or viruses given the altered immune state that accompanies pregnancy. Most care providers and health agencies agree that the flu is a risk in late pregnancy and recommend certain types of flu vaccines. But there are also natural ways to aid the pregnant immune system.

Habits


Regular Exercise

Gentle exercise cleanses the lymph system and flushes bacteria out of the lungs. When the body heats up with exercise, it helps the body to fight infection. Breathwalking, yoga, swimming, and Tai Chi are gentle forms of exercise that are beneficial for pregnant women.

Sleep

The importance of sleep cannot be stressed enough. The body resets with sleep and a healthy immune system relies upon its restorative aspects. It can be hard to get comfortable in the third trimester when the baby gains the most weight just before birth. Sleeping on your side with a pillow between the legs is one of the most comfortable positions for sleep for the pregnant woman. Heartburn can also be a problem late in pregnancy. Be sure to eat small meals in the evening or drink tea with cinnamon or ginger or peppermint. If you find your sleep is interrupted at night, try to fit in a nap during the day.

Diet

A strong diet during pregnancy helps not only with immunity, but also with the size of the baby, which in the end can ensure an easier delivery. Check out our post on the optimal pregnancy diet and tips for eating healthy.

Hydration

Most midwives will tell you that hydration is key to a healthy pregnancy. Taking in enough fluids helps to flush your lymph system and keep your kidneys and bladder healthy, and water helps to form the placenta and the amniotic sac. Dehydration during pregnancy can lead to serious pregnancy complications, including neural tube defects, low amniotic fluid, inadequate breast milk production, and even premature labor. These risks, in turn, can lead to birth defects due to lack of water and nutritional support for the baby. Aim for at least eight 8-ounce glasses of water a day.

Hand washing

Be sure to wash your hands regularly. Anti-bacterial soaps are not recommended, but washing with regular soap is a good habit to develop while pregnant and when handling your newborn, postpartum. The most effective hand washing method involves lathering the backs of your hands, between your fingers and under your nails. Be sure to wash your hands after attending a group gathering or playing with young children.

Immune Boosters


Vitamin C

A master immune booster, Vitamin C helps immune cells mature; has an antihistamine effect; controls excesses of stress hormones, which suppress immunity; is antiviral and antibacterial; and raises interferon levels, an antibody that coats cell surfaces. In addition to Vitamin C supplements, the following foods contain the vitamin: papaya, bell peppers, strawberries, oranges, grapefruit, broccoli, pineapple, kale, kiwi, or Brussels sprouts.

Tumeric

Tumeric is the food that keeps on giving. Research has shown that it’s a better inflammatory than many OTC anti-inflammatory medications and equal to low dose steroids. High in antioxidants, anti-cancer by nature, good for digestion, and excellent at controlling inflammation, turmeric offers many immune benefits. You can add turmeric to smoothies, drink turmeric tea, or add turmeric to your favorite dishes.

Garlic

Garlic is a powerful natural antibiotic. One clove is powerful enough to combat infection, with its five milligrams of calcium, 12 milligrams of potassium, and more than 100 sulfuric compounds. It’s most powerful raw. If you feel a cold coming on or feel flu-like, try a raw garlic “shot:” one minced garlic clove in a small amount of water, chased by more water. Or, if you’re really ambitious, consider a shot of raw garlic, ginger, carrots, and lemon for a quick immune boost. Raw pesto is a wonderful way to get your raw garlic – toss on pasta or slather on a piece of toast or use in place of tomato sauce on pizza.

Healthy Fats

It’s important to obtain adequate essential fatty acids (EFAs) from the diet during pregnancy and lactation. DHA supplements, an Omega-3 fatty acid, based on cultured microalgae are available in many natural food stores. EFAs boost the pregnant woman’s immune system, support endocrine function and normal function in tissues, and lessen inflammation.

Linoleic and alpha-linolenic, key components of EFAs, cannot be synthesized in the body and must be obtained from food. Omega-6 fats are derived from linoleic acid and are found in leafy vegetables, seeds, nuts, grains, and vegetable oils (corn, safflower, soybean, cottonseed, sesame, sunflower). Most diets provide adequate amounts of this fatty acid, and therefore planning is rarely required to ensure proper amounts of omega-6 fatty acids. A less common omega-6 fatty acid, gamma-linolenic acid (GLA), has been shown to have anti-inflammatory effects along with other disease-fighting powers. GLA can be found in rare oils such as black currant, borage, and hemp oils.

Research suggests that fatty acids are needed for fetal growth and fetal brain development. The EFAs are important for infants as they ensure proper growth and development and normal functioning of body tissues. Increased omega-3 fatty acid intake in the immediate post-natal period is associated with improved cognitive outcomes. It’s important that the mother’s diet contain a good supply of omega-3s because infants receive essential fatty acids through breast milk.

Zinc

The body requires zinc for production, repair, and functioning of DNA – the basic building blocks of cells. Beans, nuts, breads, seeds, dairy, and some cereals provide zinc. Too much zinc is not beneficial, so if you consider taking zinc supplements, be sure to talk to your midwife or doctor first.

Vitamin D

Vitamin D supplementation during pregnancy and breastfeeding is generally recommended. Vitamin D plays a key role in the process of priming T cells to be ready to attack invaders and to fight infection. Sunshine, oily fish, and eggs are good sources of Vitamin D. If eating fish, it’s recommended to limit the servings to 12 ounces a week because of the exposure to methylmercury in most fish.

Almonds

Almond skin contains naturally occurring chemicals that help white blood cells detect viruses and even help to keep them from spreading. Almonds contain healthy fats, fiber, iron, protein, and magnesium. Almond butter is high in protein and good fats. It’s a good substitute for peanut butter and can be served on apples, crackers, or bread.

Chicken Soup

The old adage is true: eating chicken soup boosts the immune system. The broth and vegetables combine to provide anti-inflammatory benefits. Chicken soup decreases the duration and intensity of colds and flu by inhibiting the migration of white blood cells across the mucous membrane, which, in turn, can reduce congestion and ease cold symptoms.

Yogurt or Kefir

A healthy gut is an important building block of a healthy immune system. Yogurt and even better, Kefir, are full of probiotic benefits. Buy plain yogurt or kefir and add fruit-juice sweetened jam or fresh fruit and honey to avoid the high sugar content of commercial flavored brands.

Hot Lemon Water with Honey

Fresh lemon juice is an immune powerhouse, filled with Vitamin C, vitamin B6, vitamin E, folate, niacin thiamin, riboflavin, pantothenic acid, copper, calcium, iron, magnesium, potassium, zinc, phosphorus and protein. Squeeze the juice of one fresh lemon into a teacup, fill the rest of the cup with hot tea water, and sweeten with raw honey. This drink is especially soothing when you have a sore throat, cold, or sinus issues.

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Proper hydration, healthy diet, moderate exercise, and sleep are the building blocks of a healthy pregnancy. The basic prenatal multi-vitamin offers a lot of immune enhancing properties (don’t take a generic multi-vitamin as they often contain Vitamin A, which is contraindicated for pregnancy.) Experiment with some of these immune boosting tips, but most of all enjoy your pregnancy and let your midwife or physician know if you have any questions about immunity in pregnancy.