Surviving the Fourth Trimester: For You and Your Partner

The baby is here! They’re beautiful! How in the world was this fully formed human just living inside of you, and is now on the outside with eyes and ears and the softest skin you didn’t even think was possible. This little miracle is amazing, and also brings about one of the most profound shifts in your life. Moments of staring at your beautiful sleeping baby are punctuated by the reality of living with a helpless newborn — it’s really freaking hard. 

I tell anyone who will listen: Cam and I were about as prepared as two new parents could be. We liked each other, we had a stable home, family and friends were close by and willing to help, and I had experience with babies. And still those first few months were incredibly difficult for us. 

The fourth trimester is the time period coined by Dr. Harvey Karp as the twelve weeks following birth (according to a quick Google search; it’s probably been around for many women and care-givers before him) . The idea is that babies aren’t quite ready to be out in the world yet and they need constant support and care to adjust. This can be both wonderful (yay baby snuggles!) and maddening (when will the crying end). Instead of focusing on infant care, below are a few things that were helpful for us during those first few months as parents. 

Disclaimer: This post, much like this blog, is coming with a healthy dose of partnered parenthood privilege, so this is purely from my own perspective. And although I try to watch my language, there is probably some heternormative stereotyping going on, too.  

Feel Your Feelings, but Keep an Eye On Them

After spending three nights in the hospital after my cesarean, we were so happy to be back in our home with Harvey. That first night was to be expected, awake every couple hours to feed the baby, then trying to sleep while he snorted next to us in the bassinet. I had my nursing stations set up, I stayed in my robe, and things were okay.

The next morning, the baby blues set in. I instantly felt overwhelmed and a feeling that I couldn’t do this. I texted my mom and sisters, thankfully just an hour away, to see if anyone could come over to help out and keep me company for the day. Mind you, Cam was there with no intention of leaving, but I felt at that moment that I needed my women around me, and I’m proud that I reached out, despite the little bug in my ear saying “This is too last minute!” and “You should be able to do this yourself!” 

As someone who has worked through anxiety in the past, I knew to have those conversations with Cam and my midwives while I was pregnant. I was worried that I would experience postpartum mood disorders, and thankfully all involved checked in on me regularly. My advice is to talk to your people upfront about this, and let them know any signs to be aware of (for me, it’s tearfulness, feeling like everyone hates me, and decreased energy and interest to do things). 

I don’t remember where I saw this the first time, but the distinction between baby blues and postpartum was an important one for me to learn. This graphic is a great visual of the differences. The biggest one for me is that baby blues go away after a few weeks – mine went away after the third or fourth week postpartum, thankfully. I was still emotional, tired, and felt sadness, but it wasn’t as all-encompassing as those first few weeks.

Talk to your care provider if you are concerned that you are currently experiencing, or that you might experience, postpartum mood disorders.

Stay on the Same Team with Your Partner

Here’s the thing: you will argue with your partner during this time. You’re both tired, stressed, and constantly worried about this little creature you are 100% responsible for. Cam and I argued during this time, but there are a few things I focused on to decrease the animosity and resentment a lot of women talk about feeling during this period.

I think I saw this on the blog Cup of Jo a long time ago, but Cam and I tried to have the mindset of “us versus the baby” instead of “Alex versus Cam.” When we were up in the middle of the night and bickering, I had to tell myself that we were working on this together, trying to figure out this whole new human together. We still bickered and snapped at each other, but I tried to say “us versus the baby” to him when we were in one of those moments. 

Try to stay kind to each other at nighttime. The 6:00 p.m. to 6:00 a.m. shift was rough for us during the first few months. At 6:00 p.m., Elliot would start his witching hour, and by 9:00 p.m. I would be in tears dreading a long night ahead of no sleep and what felt like constant breastfeeding. For me, staying kind looked like ignoring when I felt that Cam was doing something “wrong” (read: differently than how I would do it), and holding my tongue when I was bitter that he didn’t wake up to every noise the baby made or how he can just so easily fall back to sleep after changing a diaper. To Cam’s credit, he was usually so sleepy and mostly dead at night that he didn’t have time to be unkind. Folks, we are not perfect, but we’re still married so that’s something 😉 

Related, find your night waking rhythm. For me and Cam, when Elliot would wake up, Cam would change his diaper and then bring him to me after for me to nurse. This worked for us for the first month or so. Once my mobility improved after the cesarean, and I realized we didn’t need to be changing his diaper every time he woke up, I took on more of the night wakings. In exchange, Cam would take the baby for an hour in the morning so I could “sleep in” a little bit. You do you, though, and decide what works best for you. Here’s a couple other ideas from friends:

  • One friend had shifts with her husband, and he’d give bottles for a few hours at night so she could sleep. 
  • One friend was triple feeding, so asked her partner to give the baby a bottle while she pumped for the next one.
  • Another friend and her husband both woke up and stayed awake for each nighttime feeding.

And perhaps the most important one: your partner cannot read your mind. They just can’t. What bothers you doesn’t necessarily bother them, and your intuition as a mama is totally different than their perception and reaction to things. It’s your responsibility to say what you need and it’s their responsibility to respond to it, ideally in a helpful way. Try to avoid blaming language (e.g. “you never help” or “why don’t you notice when he’s crying”) and use the I-statements we teach to kids: “I need help right now” and “I’m so tired, please take her before I lose it.” I am not a relationship expert, clearly, but these are the things I tell myself when I’m about to lose it on Cam 🙂

Resources I Found Helpful

“The Fourth Trimester: A Postpartum Guide to Healing Your Body, Balancing Your Emotions, and Restoring Your Vitality” by Kimberly Ann Johnson. Do you need someone to tell you to take it easy? Do you need someone to offer holistic advice on how to heal, or that your emotions are 100% legit right now? Kimberly’s your girl. Like most nonfiction I did not read this cover to cover, just the chapters I needed at that moment, and found it helpful to come back to throughout this period.

I’ve recommended this before, but get yourself “Nurture: A Modern Guide to Pregnancy, Birth, Early Motherhood” by Erica Chidi Cohen. Another thoughtful woman with gentle, expert advice when you need it most.

Taking Cara Babies “Will I Ever Sleep Again?” newborn class. This guide is NOT sleep training, although Cara offers that too for older babies, and it was what I needed to understand my baby’s crazy sleep (and lack thereof), how to calm a newborn, and what our days could look like. She sums up the research in easily digestible videos and I learned a ton from this class as well as her Instagram full of free content. 

Most Importantly 

Talk to your people. These first few months can feel so overwhelming and isolating. It was really amazing to me to see which friends knew how to show up for a new mama in this crazy time. Lean on people who make you feel brave, confident, and like the powerful mama you are. 

If you do not have people close by to help out, or if your people don’t always make you feel supported, this is where a postpartum doula can be really helpful. The role of a postpartum doula is to help make this fourth trimester transition smoother, whether that’s holding your fussy baby so you can shower or processing a difficult labor and birth judgement free. I’m currently training to become a postpartum doula and am so excited to be able to provide support to women and families during this incredibly important life change!

Mamas – what helped you survive the fourth trimester? Anything you would tell others to do differently?

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