The Fourth Trimester: Navigating New Parenthood

The Fourth Trimester: Navigating New Parenthood

There are few transitions in life as massive as the transition into parenthood. So many changes take place in almost every aspect of your life, so it’s no wonder this time comes with a lot of ups and downs. The first 12 weeks after birth are often referred to as the fourth trimester, when you and your baby, as well as all of the members of your immediate family, are adjusting to life outside of the womb. This can be a time of immense joy, as you are building a bond with your little one and getting to marvel in the sweet moments of newborn life. This can also be an extremely challenging time as you manage sleep deprivation, hormonal changes, stress on your relationship, physical recovery from birth, and other challenges of new parenthood.

Often when we discuss the fourth trimester, the focus is around trying to recreate the type of environment your baby experienced in utero. This looks like swaddling and rocking, time building your bond through skin-to-skin contact, and warm baths that mimic the feeling of being in your belly. What isn’t discussed enough is how to manage the rollercoaster of the fourth trimester as a new parent. While it’s so important to focus on your baby’s needs, new parents also have a lot of needs, so it’s also essential to talk about how to take care of yourself in those first few months.

Ask for and accept help

There’s a reason why the phrase “it takes a village” is so popular. Raising little ones is no easy task, and it’s totally normal to need help during the fourth trimester. Asking for help can be really uncomfortable for a lot of people, especially if you’re used to being independent or if you were taught that asking for help is an imposition. However, asking for help is crucial because trying to power through and do everything on your own can leave you feeling overwhelmed, exhausted, and resentful.

It can be helpful to get clear on what you need help with, so when people are around or ask what they can do, you have an answer ready. This may look like having a list of tasks that need to get done, or identifying what someone else can do to give you some time to take care of yourself, like holding the baby so you can nap. This means getting comfortable with being clear about your needs and allowing other people to support you, which may take some getting used to. 

One of the most sensitive places to communicate your needs may be with your partner, as you’re navigating this new world together. Choose a time to check in when things aren’t at maximum chaos, so you can both express how you’re feeling in a calm way. It’s great to get in the habit of checking in with each other regularly, so you can have an open line of communication around what help you are needing from each other. 

Let go of perfection

Managing your expectations of yourself and others can make a world of difference in the fourth trimester. There is no such thing as perfect, and holding yourself or others to unrealistic standards can heighten the stress in an already challenging time. Letting go of perfection may look like being ok with dishes in the sink, laundry that isn’t folded, or a house that isn’t clean. Similarly, when asking for help it’s important to let go of the desire to have things done the way you would do them, and to try and be ok with someone doing things differently. 

The newborn time is the epitome of unpredictable. You never know when your baby may wake up when you weren’t expecting them to or have a blow out at the most inopportune time. Learning to roll with the punches can be really hard for a lot of mamas, but can make a big difference in how stressful the fourth trimester can be. If letting go of perfection and control is something you struggle with, this can be a great thing to work on with a therapist or talk through in a postpartum group. 

Build foundations of self-care

Self-care is an extremely important aspect of managing the fourth trimester. You are going through so much physically, emotionally, mentally, and in your day-to-day life. Building foundations of self-care means integrating small practices in your days, rather than self-care being a task on your to-do list that you only get around to when you have time. 

The basis of our mental health is our physical health, and postpartum is an extremely demanding time physically. Taking care of your physical health in postpartum may look like asking for support so you can get some extra sleep, making sure you are drinking water, and eating nourishing meals and plenty of snacks (especially if you’re breastfeeding). Once you are cleared for exercise, focus on integrating walks or a few minutes of movement into the days where you can. 

Other ways you can build a foundation of self-care is by opening the windows for some fresh air and sunshine, listening to music or a podcast you enjoy while nursing, or taking a few minutes to breathe and ground yourself before bed. The goal is for these to be small and attainable tools that add up to make a difference.

Share how you’re really feeling

It’s really common for new parenthood to be nothing like what you expected. Unfortunately, there is still a lot of stigma around sharing the hard parts of motherhood, and a tendency for parents to keep the vulnerable parts of their experiences to themselves. The more you open up about how you are really feeling with your support system, the more they can be there for you. Though it may be hard to share, speaking about your struggles doesn’t make you a bad parent or make you any less grateful for your baby. 

It’s also very normal to need some extra emotional support in the fourth trimester. It can be super helpful to connect with a support group, other new mamas, or a therapist to talk about your experience. No matter how you’re feeling, you’re definitely not alone, and there is always help available.

Watch out for comparison

There are so many things that look different in this new stage, and it can be easy to slide into comparison. Whether that’s comparing yourself to others or looking back on yourself before pregnancy, it can lead to a lot of negative self-talk and internal criticism. Try to be aware of times you get stuck in comparison, and challenge any negative thoughts that come up about yourself.

Everyone has a different experience, so what may be easy for one person is challenging for another, and vice versa. It’s also important to keep in mind that every baby is different, so while your friend’s baby may start hitting some milestones at a different time than yours, that doesn’t mean you’re doing anything wrong as a parent. Always remember, there is no better mama for your baby than you! 

Celebrate small victories

In the haze of the first few months, the small victories can go by unnoticed. You’re continually adjusting to your baby’s needs, and right when you get the hang of something, it changes. When you’re in this constant adjustment, it’s hard to recognize all of the progress you are making. Try to notice one thing per day that you are proud of. It can be as simple as brushing your teeth or having a sweet moment of connection with your baby. You are doing so many amazing things every day, and it’s easy to take them for granted when you get into auto pilot. 

It can also be helpful to zoom out to recognize how much you are growing as a parent alongside your baby. The first day you brought them home, you may have had no idea about all the things you know now. So, just as you celebrate your baby’s milestones, take stock of all of your progress as well!

Lastly, if there’s one thing to focus on in the fourth trimester, it's building self-compassion. There’s nothing helpful about being harsh towards yourself, and it’s unlikely you would talk to a friend or someone you love that way. Be aware of your inner dialogue, and try to be gentle with yourself as you move through this beautiful, unique time.

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