Slow ride. Take it Easy. When I think of the silly words of Foghat, the song somehow always makes me think of the ideal state of mind for what’s called the 4th trimester, the first three months of a baby’s life. The focus on the 4th trimester is not only nurturing the newborn baby but also the post partum care and mental health of the healing mother.
Let me take a step back for a moment. Human development is a well-studied and documented field. What’s indisputable is that human babies enter the world totally dependent on their caregivers. Experts continue to theorize as to why babies are born at the gestation period when they are born (at approximately 40 weeks.)
Some theories emanate from anthropologists who generally have thought that an infant’s brain must be sized against the pelvis length of the mother. Peter T. Ellison of Harvard University supports what he calls a metabolic crossover hypothesis, which is to say, “energetic constraints of both mother and fetus are the primary determinants of gestation length and fetal growth in humans and across mammals.” By nine months or so, the metabolic demands of a human fetus threaten to exceed the mother’s ability to meet both the baby’s energy requirements and her own, so she delivers the baby.
Whatever the cause, most human babies spend approximately 40 weeks in utero before entering our world. And most in the birthing world refer to the first three months of a baby’s life as the Fourth Trimester. What does this mean to you, the caregiver of this tiny life entrusted to you?
Many cultures around the world recognize the 4th trimester, as a celebration and tradition. The love of babies runs deep, and I encourage anyone who has the time and interest to really look at how cultures have embraced the mother infant relationship through history. Particularly inspiring are The Closing of the Bones ceremony from the Mayan culture; which involves, among other things, massage, oils and wrapping the mother tightly around the hips. This ritual is used in part to help the mother to feel nurtured and release emotions associated with the birth and motherhood. There is also the tradition of “Sitting the Month” or Zuo Yuezi in Chinese traditions, as a time to support the new family. This tradition goes back thousands of years and dictates that the mother be confined to the house for one full month after giving birth with her baby so she can properly rest and heal during the most crucial period of recovery.
Across cultures, many similar traditions can be found, which include providing food, housekeeping, emotional support and community to rally around the new family. As a lactation consultant, I encourage any structure or system that creates a space that encourages a mother and baby to focus on bonding, and for mom to learn the ways of her baby, understand her changing body, eat for herself and feed her baby.
As broad and deep as they go, some traditions can be strict and limiting while others are created with modern families in mind. Whatever you choose for you and your new baby, these main themes should prevail:
- reducing stress for new parents
- creating a calm environment
- allowing mother the space and time to recover her body and mind from birth
- protecting the feeding plan for both baby and mother
- allowing families to incubate in a protected space before having to enter the outside world
As you plan for life outside the womb remember to go slow and be gentle with yourself. We certainly do a great job pampering and preparing ourselves while pregnant, but it’s time to plan about what comes after the baby arrives. Just as we write a birth plan, we should also begin to write a postpartum plan to help organize and visualize how we would like this 4th trimester to unfold.
Unfortunately, not all maternity and paternity leave looks the same. Whatever time you have off work, try to maximize and fill the with space with time for self-care, adjusting to your new post-partum body, connecting with your baby and soaking up your new family. Look to your community for local resources for new mothers such as post-partum doulas, who not only offer practical help but also emotional support. Many work on a sliding scale so don’t be afraid to ask if you need to. Ask friends to organize a meal train for your new family, create a list of chores you would like people to help complete if they come to visit. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.
Allow yourself the space to feel overwhelmed, let your changing hormones and moods wash over you. For most of us this 4th trimester is a period of amazement at your new baby, astonishment at what your body is capable of in order to bring this new person earth side, not to mention the changes of your new postpartum body.
The stress comes from you have no idea what you are doing. Sadness, joy, anxiety and even depression are all natural emotions that may arise during this time. Allowing yourself the space to recognize and feel all these emotions will help you to get through them. Most importantly, know you don’t have to figure it all out in one day.
The importance of the weeks following birth are a critical period for a woman and her infant. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists has recently issued new recommendations of post-partum care to set the stage for long-term health and well-being. Their statement: “This Committee’s opinion has been revised to reinforce the importance of the ‘fourth trimester’ and to propose a new paradigm for postpartum care.”
Good luck on creating a paradigm that works for you! Don’t hesitate to reach out.