Your pregnancy is split into 3 trimesters; first, second, third. This helps us to understand how your baby is growing, what stages they're at, what symptoms you might be experiencing...
But there is a fourth forgotten trimester that isn't logged in your perinatal notes, that doesn't come with a little red book, and when you are discharged from your midwife at around 10 days postpartum, can feel very lonely and confusing.
The fourth trimester is the first 12 weeks of your baby being born and represents a time of immense physical and emotional change, healing, and transformation. In many cultures around the world it is a sacred time, one to be respected, in which new parents are treated delicately and gently. Many cultures will observe the 40 day lying in period, which involves the new parent resting and recuperating, being fed nutritious foods and teas, and focusing on caring for their new baby and establishing feeding. White, western culture doesn't treat new parents with the reverence they deserve, and we are often expected to bounce right back after having a baby, getting back to our normal daily routines as quick as possible is a competition of sorts sometimes. This can lead to a widespread misunderstanding of normal newborn behaviour and higher risk of postnatal depression and anxiety. The fact is, babies don't know this, and they'll be going through this fourth trimester whether or not we expect it to happen.
So what does the fourth trimester look like?
Your baby will want to be held all the time BY YOU.
Since the beginning of their existence, they have known nothing but you. Your smell, your heartbeat, the sound of your voice. All of a sudden they've emerged into a world where they can experience hunger, cold, brightness, loud noises, and their primitive brain which is hard wired for survival has not been given the memo that they're safe in their moses basket, or with great aunt Edna. All they want is you. They feel safest and happiest near you. This might mean every time you put them down they cry, or they don't last longer than a few minutes in the pram or in their cot.
Your baby will want to feed often.
In the womb they are fed 24/7 and have yet to have to ask for food or comfort. When they are born, they now need to ask for food and for connection and they seek this from their parents' milk. It takes time for them to work out their own routine that best suits their needs, and they have a huge boost of oxytocin (the love hormone) every time they feed. Since this hormonal boost makes them feel loved and safe, it is only normal that they want it often. We need to remember that we are carrying mammals, too. This means that, unlike horses, or elephants, for example, our young aren't born with the ability to walk or fend for themselves and they rely on us to stay alive. We are more like apes, our babies need to be carried, then need to be close to us, and they can achieve this by feeding often. If they're feeding, they're close, and that keeps them safe.
You might be experiencing a hormonal rollercoaster.
It is perfectly normal to feel delicate and vulnerable in this period. You might find yourself wanting to hibernate almost. Remember the nesting feeling as your baby arrived (whatever this looked like for you)? This can continue after the baby is born. You've (metaphorically speaking) built the nest, so now your instinct is to lie in it. You might feel sudden bursts of energy, to then feel drained and tired. You might be teary, you might also not want to be apart from your baby and feel concerned that this is anxiety or something else. The truth is that, just as our babies brains are wired to want to be near us, so are ours! Humans have evolved this far because of that beautiful instinct we have to keep our newborns near us.
Ok cool but, like, how do I survive this?
This is normal*. This is healthy. If you expect baby to want to be on you all the time, it feels easier and less of a shock. Lower your expectations of what you will be able to do and focus on meeting your basic needs and being with your baby.
ASK FOR HELP.
I have a blog post here for your family members and friends so they can help you in a way that is actually useful. You can ask for specific help that you will benefit from. If someone is asking to visit, you can ask them to swing by the shops first and get you food, or bring you a cooked meal over. When people offer a gift, ask them to pay for an hour of a cleaner, or to come and run the hoover round, or do some laundry for you. This is NOT you being difficult, or controlling, this is you being honest and prioritising your needs and your baby's needs.
If you have the option, consider hiring a postnatal doula, or someone to support you with feeding if you are struggling.
REST REST REST REST.
Asking for help will mean you can rest. However you have given birth, your body and mind has just been through a HUGE change, so give yourself time to rest. Feet up, with lots of fluids, and keep your baby on you. You deserve to take it easy and do tiny bits of things. I know sometimes help is unavailable, perhaps you have no family nearby, or your friends can't support physically, or maybe you have older children, so if you must do things, take things slowly and break each task into tiny steps. You don't have to put the whole bucket of laundry away. You could just fold enough clothes for the family for one day. They can even stay in those piles so you don't have to move from your bed or the sofa. You don't need to clean the kitchen, you could gently wash what is needed for the next meal. You don't have to make a whole meal, picky dinners are fine and fun! For every 5 minutes you are active and completing something, try and then take another 5 minutes sat down with baby.
Not only is babywearing excellent for the baby, it helps you too! Babies are often much more relaxed in a carrier or sling, and it gives you two hands to eat, scroll through your phone, go on a short walk, read books to your big smalls... It is also great for physical recovery, as it gently engages your core and helps your spine recover from the changes it went through during pregnancy to accommodate your growing uterus. If you have a partner, or helpful family member, they could try wearing the baby too, which would give you time to sleep, shower, anything you need to do for you, whilst bay is happy and feeling loved and safe.
FIND A VILLAGE
Whether in person or online, get yourself around people who have been through, or are going through, the same things as you. If you surround yourself with people who parent the same and respect the fourth trimester, you will find yourself supported and understood. Many breastfeeding groups on Facebook, or local in person drop in groups, will be full of parents who can relate to what you're going through and who can help when you're struggling.
Whilst some people report not having supportive family members, there are many that are helpful and understanding of your needs postpartum. Latch on to these people (pun intended!) and keep them close. When they offer support, they mean it, so accept it. Helpful family members who understand are gold dust, and I know from being one, we do not help for anything in return. Every time one of my neighbours on my estate has a baby, I go round with food, my number in case they need extra support, and the offer to do washing/housework if needed. In the nicest way possible, these people will appear to not care about the baby, and be more interested in how YOU are doing. Accept their offers and tell the guilt you might feel to f*ck off!
And just incase no one has told you, you don't have to stop parenting gently like this just because your baby turns 12 weeks. They don't suddenly stop needing us, and you're allowed to want to enjoy your baby for as long as needed.
*In some circumstances, baby feeding constantly, or being incredibly upset and crying, can be indicative of something more complex. If you are ever concerned, seek support from your midwife, health visitor, or GP.