I'd never heard of the '4th trimester' when I was pregnant, but I think I would have found this concept quite helpful in preparing myself for motherhood. As any parent will tell you, those first few hours, days, weeks, months of your baby's life can be pretty daunting. Even with some experience of helping out with other people's babies doesn't prepare you for adjusting to life with your own baby.
Basically, the idea of the 4th trimester encourages Mama to approach the first few months of baby's life as an extension of life in the womb.
The 4th trimester is about helping baby and Mama to adjust to their life together by: spending the first few days in bed; feeding on demand; cuddling often; and responding to baby's cues.
So far, baby has spent all its life in the womb - cosy and comfy, with every need taken care of. All of a sudden they are out of the womb and into the world... and every sound, smell, touch, sight, sensation must be quite a shock to the system. They have to deal with and adjust to every single tiny thing that happens to them, and it must be overwhelming to say the least. These first few months is when baby learns to sleep, breathe steadily, soothe and interact.
Not only is it strange for baby to be outside the womb, many women also find it strange not to be pregnant anymore, so the 4th trimester is all about adjusting, relaxing, and allowing your new life together to fall into place naturally and gently.
Spend the first few days in bed:
As I was getting ready to bring my baby son home from hospital, one midwife advised me to spend the first 2 or 3 days in bed with him... not going anywhere (except to the loo of course!) but just to be together in the quiet of the bedroom - feeding, cuddling, resting, sleeping.
She explained this is a really good way to encourage baby to relax, and for both of you to bond. Since newborns require feeding so often (some feed as often as every 20 minutes!) it makes sense to spend that time in bed rather than on the sofa or trying to get the housework done. Just forget the housework (or get hubby/a relative/friend to do it) and focus only on yourself and baby, as if nothing else in the world exists or matters.
After a few days Mama has a much better idea of how often baby needs to feed, or how long he sleeps between feeds, how often he needs his nappy changed, or when he simply want to be cuddled. Let baby lead on these things rather than trying to wake them to feed at certain times, or trying to put them down at certain times to sleep. Let them do these things when they want... just relax and trust that they will surely let you know!
Feed on demand:
As your midwife will no doubt advise, the key to keeping baby happy and healthy is feeding him as often as he wants, no matter whether you breastfeed, pump, give formula, or whatever. Newborn babies have teeny tummies, and expend a lot of energy simply growing, so it's to be expected they get hungry quickly.
Nursing keeps Mama in a good supply of milk - though it's really important you drink plenty of water to aid lactation, keep energy levels up, and avoid dehydration. Nursing helps you lose weight too - this is the one time in your life you can lose weight by sitting in bed. Enjoy!
You may have read my previous article where a staff nurse told me I was spoiling my son by cuddling him too much (he was 2 months premature, suffered a collapsed lung and spent his first month in intensive care... and she told me not to spoil him with cuddles... the worst advice ever!) But be assured this advice is stuff and nonsense. There's no such thing as cuddling your newborn baby too much, or spoiling him, or 'creating bad habits' such as clinginess.
As baby grows he will naturally become more independent. Cuddling is very soothing - he loves the rhythm of movement, your smell, your warmth, your heartbeat, the reassurance of your voice and just being close to you.
Baby also loves being held upright tummy-to-tummy... this is a calming position, and also gives relief from trapped gas or reflux issues. This is why 'wearing your baby' is something mothers do worldwide, whether in the jungles or in the cities. Babies are used to Mama's daily movements from being in the womb all that time, and it's very comfortable for them - more so than being stationary and on their back in a crib or basket. Many mothers do the housework with baby strapped to them! And baby sleeps happily against their Mama, their whole world.
Follow baby's cues:
Whilst routines are indeed very helpful for baby, it's not a very realistic expectation for the first weeks/months of baby's life to try to establish a rigid routine. You'll find their needs change perhaps daily or every few days. They may sleep 6 hours one night, but for the next week they'll only sleep 2 hours at a time. He might feed really well one day, and the next day you're in a panic because he doesn't seem to want to eat at all. It's a harsh reality, but Mamas – you just have to go with it and try to keep your cool. Baby will settle into a routine eventually, but try not to force it or stress about it.
A routine is best established mutually rather than Mama trying to impose a routine that doesn't quite work for baby. It's not easy, and sometimes it feels like baby doesn't know what he wants! There are things you can do to gently aid a routine to naturally fall into place, such as dimming the lights at night, being quieter, giving them a bath/wash, singing lullabies... And during the day to open the curtains, make more 'daytime' noises, etc.
A few other thoughts:
Some mothers can't wait to show off their baby (understandably) and are only too happy for everyone to visit either in the hospital or immediately they're home. However, other mothers can't think of anything worse (understandably) than having an influx of visitors in those first days or weeks after baby is born.
Whatever works for you as a new mother is what needs to happen, regardless of whether Grandma is eager to bring her hand-knitted booties for him, or whether the neighbour wants to meet baby before they go on holiday. No-one else matters except Mama and baby! If you think you won't be able to say “no” when the time comes, then ask your partner or friend to make sure your wishes are met.
It can be handy to keep a flask and supply of herbal teas or healthy snacks beside your bed. You think you know what tired means, but trust me, you don't know what tired is until you have a baby and never get more than a couple hours sleep at a time! It's super hard to stay awake to feed or do whatever it is your baby demands of you, so being able to pour a cup of tea at 4am can be a life-saver. Or if your baby is bottle-fed, having a flask to hand means you don't have to keep getting up to boil the kettle every time a bottle needs warming.
Most of all - enjoy every precious moment together!
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("5 Cs" shared with kind permission from @kiwideb)