The first three months after a baby’s birth are often called the 4th trimester. During this time, not only are you recovering from the physical and emotional toll of having just birthed a human, but you’re also getting to know your new baby — and yourself as a new mother. This is a sacred time for you and your growing family.
New moms in particular, however, may have some preconceived ideas about what the fourth trimester should look like. Many women imagine themselves “hopping right back to it,” doing all the things they did before giving birth, and being who they’ve always been.
In reality, however, the first few months of the postpartum period are a time of incredible transformation. They’re rarely what anyone could’ve imagined without living it firsthand.
This article can help you reassess what to expect in the fourth trimester.
With this knowledge, you may be able to lean in and enjoy the time with your newborn in a deeper and more meaningful way, and to get to know yourself in this new role, as well. After all, the goal isn’t actually just to survive the fourth trimester, but to thrive in it. In doing so, you can set yourself up for a healthy and happy relationship with your family. Creating some healthy habits now is rather like laying the foundation for a house. This guide can be part of your blueprint.
Seven Ways to Thrive in the 4th Trimester
It’s no secret that the fourth trimester is often exhausting for new moms. Pregnancy takes a toll. Birth certainly takes a toll, too. It can take weeks, and often months, to adjust physically and mentally to all the changes a baby brings. Not to mention, you’re keeping this tiny human alive in the meantime!
Fortunately, there are some proven ways to support baby’s and mom’s ongoing health. As a starting point, it can be important to acknowledge what’s normal in the fourth trimester:
Understand that your body just took nine months to grow a life, and it’s going to take many months to return to its (more or less) “regular” state
That said, your body will be permanently altered at the most fundamental levels, as you are literally carrying your baby’s genetic material now, and they are, yours! Give your body as much wholesome nourishment as you can while you recover. You’re rebuilding yourself.
Interesting fact: “DNA from male fetuses can remain in mothers’ brains for a lifetime. Giving a whole new meaning to ‘pregnancy brain,’ a…study shows that male DNA—likely left over from pregnancy with a male fetus—can persist in a woman’s brain throughout her life.” (source) Similarly, in addition to carrying our children’s DNA, we may even be carrying around cells from our older siblings, parents, and grandparents. (source)
Know how normal it can be to feel a wide range of emotions after baby’s birth, from elation one moment to sadness, the next
This can be perfectly normal as your hormones adjust. You should expect some degree of unpredictability for approximately six months (source). The timing often coincides with the return of your first period post-pregnancy. In fact, approximately 85% of women “experience the ‘baby blues’ after childbirth, which commonly include mood swings, crying spells, anxiety and difficulty sleeping. Baby blues typically begin within the first two to three days after delivery, and may last for up to two weeks.” (source)
DO make sure to seek professional medical advice if you have any concerns about postpartum depression or postpartum anxiety. Your mental health in the fourth trimester (and beyond) matters every bit as much as your physical recovery does. You are not alone, and you’re strong for seeking help if you need it.
Plan to redefine “accomplishment” for the next 12 weeks
I know it can be tough, particularly for Type A personalities, to plan to kick back during the fourth trimester. We thrive on being productive! At the same time, what if I told you that the main achievements to accomplish for the foreseeable future are to help your baby feel loved and safe in this world, and to take care of your physical and mental health along the way?
Your baby won’t care if the laundry is done and put away; if you pulled out yet another meal from the freezer, or if you’ve been sporting the same clothes for the past three days. Nor will baby care about socializing much with life outside your arms. After all, they’ve been cozy and warm in your womb for nearly a year. The world outside is bright and cold. It’s natural that they’d crave the feelings of security they’ve known up until now. Even outside the womb, you can continue to provide that security and warmth to them now.
Being close to you 24×7 is biologically and developmentally normal and healthy. There is nothing “wrong” with baby if they want you to hold them all the time. Moreover, there is nothing wrong with YOU if you want to hold your baby all the time! Go for it. It’s impossible to spoil a baby (related article here, or take a mini-course on this topic for free). Humans are designed for connection.
And yes, it can also be exhausting to be needed so very much. I’ll address that momentarily.
It’s easy, especially for new mothers, to feel guilty about all the things we think we “should” be doing. The truth is, though, almost none of our “shoulds” matter right now. Take the time to get to know your newborn baby. See who they are; how they respond to your voice. Learn what kind of touch they like; learn what you need to feel good about taking care of yourself while your body recovers. In being responsive to your baby now, you’re creating something called emotional attunement.
Prioritize nurturing emotional attunement to your baby
What is attunement and why is it important for baby’s and mother’s mental health?
Attunement is a kinesthetic and emotional sensing of others knowing their rhythm, affect and experience by metaphorically being in their skin, and going beyond empathy to create a two-person experience of unbroken feeling connectedness by providing a reciprocal affect and/or resonating response. (source)
Attunement lays the groundwork for baby’s secure attachment with you, which we begin to influence by being responsive in the first few months (and ongoing). How do we attune to our baby? During the fourth trimester, we can
- Respond quickly to their sleep and hunger cues
- Keep baby close, including babywearing if possible
- Talk and sing to baby, make eye contact, and offer lots of loving touch
- Learn about what baby’s different kinds of communication mean; different babies have different sensory needs
Dismiss the old cliché that babies don’t come with instruction manuals
When you have a newborn, it’s very common for a new mom or dad to hear that “Babies don’t come with instruction manuals.” To the contrary, they absolutely do — and any belief to the contrary will do nothing but undermine your confidence. To be sure, they don’t exit the womb holding little booklets to tell you all the intricate details of their needs and preferences. They are hard wired, however, to communicate exactly what they need from you.
It’s going to take you a little while to decipher their particular “language,” but trust me, it’s there.
In the weeks and months following birth, you will learn how baby likes to be held, fed, changed, and loved. You’ll learn how much light and noise they can comfortably tolerate, and so much more. They’ll tell you through not only their cries, which are surely a form of communication, but also through their peacefulness and their body language, and soon, their smiles and eye contact. They are their own instruction manual, and you are perfectly capable of learning how to read it. Your intuition is there to help you. The more you trust it, the more your confidence will grow.
Speaking of crying, don’t believe anyone who tells you, “The only ways babies communicate is by crying, because it’s all they have.” Their lack of crying is also clear communication. (Here are more tips on gracefully handling advice that doesn’t feel right to you.) And it’s true — some babies simply cry more than others. If you’re doing your best to be an attuned and responsive parent, give yourself a whole lot of grace. It can feel overwhelming, so make sure to check in with what you need to feel safe and cared for, too.
Forget trying to get your baby to sleep through the night during the 4th trimester
Why? Because it’s not important to their development (only cumulative hours of sleep per 24 hours is), nor is it even healthy for this age. Babies are designed to wake often to eat and seek comfort. Their brains and bodies are growing exponentially, and they need ongoing nourishment to do that.
Related article: Expert Tips on Baby Sleep
Think of the 4th trimester, and really the first year and beyond, as one gigantic growth spurt. Most babies double their birth weight by about the age of five months — that’s going to require a lot of calories! (source) To be clear, babies’ only nourishment should come from breast or bottle at this age. No food or thickeners (rice cereal or otherwise) are safe for baby to consume yet; even in soft forms, as they can pose a choking hazard (source). Plus, it’s been disproven that solids help babies in the 4th trimester sleep longer. Sleep is developmental.
Also, since their tummies are tiny, that means frequent feedings are biologically necessary. On-demand feeding day and night is shown to be most beneficial for all babies, and particularly for breastfed babies (source). Even if you’re somehow getting plenty of sleep, your body may still be working incredibly hard! If you’re breastfeeding, it burns an additional 500-700 calories per day, even if you’re not otherwise moving around much. (source)
Rest. Rest often. Listen to your body.
Ask for help, especially during the first six weeks of the fourth trimester
As hard as it is, ask for help during the postpartum period. The more you try to do on your own, the more exhausted you’re likely to be. Pregnancy and giving birth are exhausting enough as it is, and perpetually exhausted new moms struggle more than ones who receive help of some kind.
If you don’t have a partner, parent, or friend who can stay with baby and you full-time, see if someone can come by and support you sometimes. It all helps. Other health care providers, such as postpartum doulas, can also help tremendously. Even joining a local mom’s group online and requesting a meal or some kind of support may surprise you with the generosity of others.
Especially during the early days and weeks of the fourth trimester, you may often be lovingly “trapped” under baby. Newborns are known for needing to nurse or eat around the clock, especially during the first six weeks.
Ask for what you need. Those of us who’ve been there, get it.
The fourth trimester can feel like much longer than 12 weeks, but it passes in the blink of an eye
Perhaps the most important message you can internalize after pregnancy is that, just like the pregnancy itself, the newborn phase won’t last long. A single trimester following the birth of a human, and the evolution of a family, will be gone before you know it.
Show up for your baby; show up for yourself.
You’re exactly the mom your baby needs, and you’re surrounded in the world by mothers who’ve learned to thrive with support from those of us who’ve been there. You’ve got this.
About the Author
Sarah R. Moore is the founder of Dandelion Seeds Positive Parenting, an author (first parenting book coming 2022), an armchair neuroscientist, and most importantly, a Mama. She’s a lifelong learner with training in child development, improv comedy, trauma recovery, and interpersonal neurobiology. She helps bring JOY, EASE, and CONNECTION back to families. Take her science-based and video mini-courses here, and follow her on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube and Pinterest.