Books and antenatal classes will tell you about newborn poop and how many nappies are normal. How much milk growing babies need, how your baby should sleep, and all the pros and cons of the various birth choices.
But what they don’t tell you is what it feels like to suddenly become Mum and Dad. And that for most new parents, the first three months are the hardest. Although nothing can really prepare you for the fourth trimester, here’s at least a few things you can expect…
Be Prepared to be Unprepared
We were so prepared. We finished the nursery, bought everything on our newborn baby checklist and packed my hospital bag with months to spare. Attended an NCT antenatal course, bought the books and downloaded the apps, tracking our little bean’s weekly growth from olive stone to watermelon.
And yet, we were totally and completely unprepared. For the crazy birth, the sleepless nights, my breastfeeding struggles, mastitis, the who am I now crisis, and a heap of body recovery issues. While it’s important to be prepared, the best advice I can give, is be prepared to be unprepared.
Read the books, then forget the books
A bit like your birth plan, a lot of what you read in the books goes out the window soon after your baby arrives. The most common things people do (that the books tell you not to) are things like swaddling to soothe or co-sleeping for breastfeeding moms, among others. The NCT also told us not to burp or fart the baby, although most parents will agree that is ridiculous advice.
So take what you hear with a pinch of salt. The books are certainly helpful as a guideline, especially for stuff on nappies and sleeping, but what’s really interesting about the fourth trimester is that you actually don’t need anything other than your own instincts. You will know, better than anyone else, what is best for your baby.
Ask for Help
Those first few weeks can feel like Groundhog Day on crack. The rota of feeds, catnaps and nappy changes is relentless. Although the frequency will eventually drop, the work never stops. While I normally consider myself a very independent, do-it-all-myself type person, I needed help. I needed a village.
Whether that’s bringing over cooked meals (one of the best things you can do for new parents), helping in the house (even better), help with the baby (but only if you have kids yourself) or just for moral support, having people there for you in the fourth trimester will make a huge difference.
However, asking for help isn’t always easy, so it’s important that you speak up and ask since people may be keeping their distance to give you space. Of course, not all families will patiently wait for your call. There are those that will show up at the hospital with bags packed and never seem to leave! Whatever type you have, your family means well and want to help. It’s up to you to show them how.
Don’t expect too much from people without kids
As the last of three sisters to have my own child, having a baby made me understand that I wasn’t there for them like they were for me. I came to visit, I brought gifts, but I didn’t know how to help and had no clue what they really needed. How could I? So don’t expect too much from people without kids of their own, and don’t be too hard on them for it. Because just like me then, they don’t know now.
This Too Shall Pass
One of the (many) annoying questions for a pregnant woman is whether or not she’s popped yet. Trust me, she doesn’t need reminding of the endless eternity that is the last few weeks and days of pregnancy.
But what I didn’t expect was the sudden warped shift in the space-time continuum, decelerating towards my due date like a slow-motion action scene before suddenly hitting fast-forward once my baby was out.
So no matter what sweet hell you’re going through in that fourth trimester, the beauty is that it doesn’t last forever. Each week brings something new and unexpected. Just go with it, roll with the punches, and try to enjoy every sweet and sour second.
Make peace with your birth
Right after I birthed my baby boy, I remember looking at myself in the mirror and not recognising the woman looking back at me. I felt as if I had been in a serious accident that I had just about survived. Looking back, I think I may have been in shock. Since I never planned for an all-natural birth, I definitely felt a lot worse in the aftermath than I had expected.
For me, the natural birth experience was extreme. Before that the only operation I’d ever had was to remove my wisdom teeth… Three tiny pieces of calcium and dentine, surgically removed whilst I was put to sleep! And then this…? With no pain relief at all?
Joints, muscle, skin and bone, pulled to their limits. Contorting. Ripping. Bleeding. Stitching. And this is acceptable because it’s natural? For many women, yes, the answer is a resounding yes. But for me, I just don’t get it. It was certainly not the Kodak moment I had pictured. But we were all alive, and that’s what matters.
The point of sharing my story is that no matter what happens or how, it’s important to make peace with it and move on. Especially since most births don’t go to plan, it’s worth thinking through all the possibilities.
It’s ok not to feel ok
Giving birth is a hormonal cocktail more potent than what you’ll find in the average college dorm. As a result, hormone imbalances resulting from varying doses of relaxin, prolactin, oxytocin, oestrogen and progesterone are actually very common.
Nevertheless, the mood swings can really come as a shock to women who expected the transition into motherhood to feel like the happiest time of their lives, only to find themselves crying uncontrollably instead.
It’s called the baby blues, which usually only lasts for 1-2 days. Crying or feeling down or anxious for longer is most often a sign of post-natal depression, affecting more than 1 in 10 women in the UK. The fourth trimester is hard enough without a chemical imbalance, which is why it’s important not to go through it alone.
…And not know who you are
I had heard about it, but honestly didn’t expect the who am I? crisis to hit so soon. They tell you it’s a 24/7 job, but when you look at all the billions of mothers out there, it kinda makes it feel, you know, doable. Like, since anyone can do it, it can’t be that hard, can it? Smug face. Stupid face.
Oh it’s hard alright. The problem for a lot of women is that once they assume their new 24/7 role as mother, it becomes increasingly confusing to understand how that role could ever be compatible with, say, going back to work. Not all women can do it all, and for some that means pressing pause on their lives or aspirations well beyond the fourth trimester.
I don’t think anyone can really understand the sacrifices involved in either path, whether that’s becoming a stay at home mum or a working mum until it happens to you. Although the job is tough, it’s what gives mums their superpowers.
Don’t think about the second kid
When I was pregnant, a mother-of-three told me about how when she had her first baby, she loved it so much that she thought she couldn’t possibly love another the same. At the time, I thought it was the weirdest thing to say… As the third child in my family, I couldn’t help but think, erm lady, of course you would love all your children?
But after having my own, I totally understand what she was trying to say! It’s not that you won’t love another, but when you have your first, you suddenly feel so complete, so full of love, that it’s genuinely hard to imagine having more love to give.
In those first few months, a lot of new mums find it really hard to think about having a second child. As your baby starts to poop less and sleep more, the idea of repeating the whole experience feels absurd. That is, until your baby gets a little older and your memory a little foggier. Sometimes as early as once you’re out of that fourth trimester!
Love your new body
For most women, loving your new postpartum body doesn’t come easily. We live in an aesthetically 20-something photoshopped world, one in which mom-bods often feel like they don’t belong. No matter how many times your partner says you’re beautiful, you know your body and how it has changed.
Weight gain is just one of the many, many changes your body goes through during and after pregnancy. The most important thing is to eat well as a lot of the baby weight will fall off naturally during the fourth trimester.
Instagram photos of ‘real moms’ bellies and stretch-marks might help with your body image, while comments from family or friends that you still look 6 months pregnant while prodding your stomach don’t (you know who you are). The truth is that your baby took 9 months to grow a baby, and for most of us, it’ll take at least that long to heal and recover.
While your body deserves a break, there are some things you can do to help. First of all, rather than rush back to the gym, find a specialist postnatal class or personal trainer, someone qualified to show you the right exercises to help strengthen and tone your incredible body.
Generally speaking, the advice is to refrain from sit-ups, running and jumping for a whole year, and to be especially careful with squats and weights as you work on rebuilding your pelvic floor.
See a gyno and physio
In the UK, a woman will never see a gynaecologist during her pregnancy or after birth. But why not? But surely? No really, that’s how it is here. And some women may think that’s just fine and power to you. But as a woman having just experienced first-hand the physical impact of childbirth, I urge you to see both a gynaecologist and physiotherapist at the end of the fourth trimester. It’s too important an area to ignore.
Take your time
A common theme I found is that many women seriously underestimate the amount of time it takes to recover from childbirth, impacting everything from your ability to exercise to having sex.
When I asked my gynaecologist about the average time it takes for couples to have sex again, her answer shocked me. She said that only around 25% are having regular sex after 6 months postpartum.
It shocked me because I had a completely different statistic in my head. I was under the impression that most couples wait a couple of weeks, not half a year. But it doesn’t matter what other couples do. Whether you fall into the 25% or the 75%, take as long as you need.
A New Meaning of Tired
We’ve all been that person telling a new parent how tired we are. From stress at work or a party that ended up in another country, whatever. We get that they’re probably more tired, but we’re pretty tired too, right? Therefore, surely it’s something we have in common, no?
No. No no no no no no no. Let me put it to you this way. I’ve been 3-day-techno-festival tired, I’ve been all-nighter-drank-6-red-bulls-to-survive-exam-week tired, I’ve been 14-hour-flight-in-economy tired. I’ve been Jet-lag tired, didn’t-sleep-a-wink-last-night tired, Barry’s-Bootcamp-hell-week tired, moved-house-and-unpacked-all-my-things-in-a-day-tired, climbed-to-the-top-of-Sigiriya-rock-under-the-scorching-sun tired, food-poisoning tired, hungover tired, can’t-keep-my-eyes-open tired.
But nothing, and I mean nothing, compares to mum-of-a-newborn-baby-fourth-trimester tired.
We win, you lose, the end.