The 4th Trimester: Mothering the New Mother

mom and baby.jpg

What's the 4th trimester?

When you were pregnant you made it a priority to take care of yourself. You took your prenatal vitamins, ate a healthy diet, went to prenatal yoga classes, got prenatal massages, went to your doctor's appointments and learned all you could about the birth of your baby. People, especially friends and family treated you with care and respect. After all you were about to bring a new life into the world. Then you gave birth and....everything changed! 

The three months after you give birth are what is known as the 4th trimester. Everyone is always so focused on the pregnancy and the big event - the birth. So once your baby is born you are pretty much on your own.

If you are having your baby in a hospital in the US, this is what usually happens: you give birth, spend 24 hours in the hospital and are handed your baby and told to have a nice day. If you've never had a baby before this can be very overwhelming. You have this little person that is totally dependent upon you, and there are no instructions attached!

Most new moms are pretty well prepared for their pregnancy, and even the birthing process but very few think beyond that.

In the US, birthing is generally considered a medical condition - there are lots of doctor's appointments, tests and monitoring. Ironically what happens after you give birth is considered a natural transition for you, and the medical focus shifts to your baby Not much attention is given to your recovery period after the birth. It is true that after you give birth your body will eventually revert to its pre-pregnancy state, however this is a process. Your body will heal itself quicker and you will feel stronger and suffer less from common postpartum complaints if you have proper care after you give birth. Most new moms are pretty well prepared for their pregnancy, and even the birthing process but very few think beyond that.

What happens during the 4th trimester?

After you have your baby you will probably be sore, tired, weepy and anxious. Hormonal shifts in the first days after delivery can cause dramatic mood swings. It is estimated that half of all women in the US suffer from baby blues. These mood swings should last no more than a week or two. It is common to feel weepy, easily upset and unable to sleep. Realistically, how much sleep can you get if you are feeding your baby every two hours? I'm amazed how well new moms function on virtually no sleep!

We need to take a lesson from new mothers in other parts of the world where the 4th trimester is an honored time. This time is totally different from the woman's normal life. A new mother is encouraged to rest, recuperate and bond with her baby. Her mother, grandmother, sisters and aunts look after her. Many of our grandmothers or great grandmothers remember this period of time as "laying in". It was essentially the time when a new mother was learning to become a mother. During this period new mothers are recognized as being especially vulnerable so they are handle with care. In some cultures there is ritual bathing, massage and binding of the abdomen. Special food is prepared for the new mother to build her strength and to help with milk production.

A period of seclusion is also part of the ritual. In some cultures mothers and their babies are secluded from everyone except female relatives and their midwives for 5 days. Seclusion is thought to promote breastfeeding and limit the mother's normal activities. What a difference from here in the US where a mother is expected to entertain family and friends who come to see the baby. It is interesting that postpartum depression and postpartum blues are almost nonexistent in cultures where the mother is taken care of. It will probably be a long time before new mothers in this country are given the special care they need. We are starting to take "baby steps" in the right direction.

Tips for the 4th trimester

Here are some ways to take care of yourself in the 4th trimester:

Hire a postpartum doula. These are women who are trained to support you physically and emotionally. They will do light housekeeping and cooking and will help you adjust to having a baby.

Join a new moms group. When you are trying to cope challenges that are bound to come up, it's good to be realistic and know you're not alone. A virtual group is great when you can't manage to take a shower much less get out of the house. You'll hear stories that are so similar to your own. You'll know you're not alone and this will boost your confidence.

Give into your fatigue. You are tired and for good reason. Take a nap whenever you can. Arrange to have support at home. When friends and family want to come and see the new baby say yes but let them know you could use some help. Maybe they can bring food, help with the laundry or watch the baby while you take a shower. Don't be embarrassed to ask. Your friends will understand. This isn't a time for you to be entertaining.

Take care of yourself nutritionally. If you are breastfeeding, you will need extra liquids. Drink plenty of water. The amount of calories you need also increase if you are breastfeeding. It takes calories to produce all that breast milk. And make sure those calories are good calories. Your baby is getting his or her nutrition from you so make sure your food is nutrient dense. Even if you're not breastfeeding you need good nutrition to keep up your energy. If you need help call a nutritionist that works with pregnant and postpartum women. Some will do phone consultations. No need for you to leave the house.

Don't put unrealistic expectations on yourself. It took 9 months to make your baby. Give yourself 9 months to get back into shape and back on track.

Use the 4th trimester to bond with your baby and adjust to your new life. Your life will never be the same. The challenges will be different but so will the rewards. Remember that you've done an amazing thing. You've brought a new baby into the world.

Now I'd like to hear from you. How are you planning for your 4th Trimester? Share your ideas, tips and comments below.