How to Take Care of Yourself in the Fourth Trimester
Birth Doula Missy David discusses the importance of self-care during the fourth trimester
You’ve been anticipating the arrival of your baby for a while now. For nine months, you’ve lovingly carried and cared for this little one in your belly while imagining her first cry, her face, and smelling that sweet new baby smell. The time has finally come, your baby is home with you and life with a newborn is… not what you expected?
When you’re swept up in the energy of having a newborn, it’s often easy to forget to look after yourself. I’m here to offer some important tips on how to prepare for the first six weeks postpartum and how to take care of yourself while also looking after your baby.
Not Quite What You Expected
The first six weeks postpartum, known as the fourth trimester, completes the childbearing year. What should you expect during this time? While the love you feel for your baby can be intoxicating and the relief of not being pregnant and surviving labor is rewarding, many mothers experience some confusing emotions during the first six weeks postpartum. These conflicting emotions and the struggle to find a new normal may also be accompanied by physical fluctuations that you may not have expected.
And Then There Were Two
Our society does a great job of pampering pregnant women, offering them a seat, insisting they put their feet up, stay well fed, etc. And once the baby is born, friends and family usually put all the focus on the new baby, but the truth is there are two people who need caring for: mother and baby. As much as you expected to spend your days and nights holding, feeding, changing and loving on your little one, you may not have expected the need to care for yourself as well.
What New Mothers Need
In her book Mothering the New Mother, Sally Placksin lists the needs of new mothers, based on extensive interviews with real parents who vulnerably shared about the struggles and learning curves associated with early parenting and postpartum recovery. These include:
- Rest so your body can heal
- Unbiased education and encouragement in parenting skills
- Healthy food and drinks for your body
- Delegation of household tasks to allow you bonding and self-reflection time
- Wisdom about what is going on with your body and spirit
- Authentic representations and timelines regarding the scope of emotions other women have experienced after childbirth
- Opportunities to debrief about your birthing experience and how you feel about it
- Emotional and physical care for your body and mind
It’s easy, especially in our culture of high expectations for new parents and limited access to in-person communities, to assume that you should put all of your needs aside to care for your infant. This idea of self-sacrifice is exalted but misleading, since we cannot give what we don’t have. Whether it is the pressure to return to pre-pregnancy fitness, to return to work quickly, or to complete every parenting task without error, new parents approach the postpartum period as one more task to be completed for recognition rather than the monumental life transition that it is. In reality, mothers who are not well cared for themselves can feel like they’re running on empty, with very little to give to their babies or other important relationships.
How to Get the Care You Need
In many cultures it is common practice to honor the early postpartum period by intentionally caring for the mother and baby in practical and sacred ways. In reference to these many and varied global traditions, “Some practices are based on religious beliefs. Some are based on tribal taboos. Some are believed to be beneficial from a medicinal perspective. Some are practical, protecting the new mom from overexertion, or even too many visitors. Some are more universal—assuring the presence of a close female relative or doula, or a female network to care for the new mom and help ease her transition into motherhood”.
Just like you might write a birth plan for your childbirth experience, it’s wise to prepare a postpartum plan as well. The best way to get the help you need is to ask for it! If it’s difficult for you to ask for help because you interpret it as being weak, try to think of it as seeking the care you deserve. Giving birth and transitioning into parenthood is challenging for everyone, no matter how bright and shiny their online profile is.
Professional Care You Deserve
Contact friends and family ahead of time and schedule assistance for each of your needs for at least 6 weeks after the baby is born. If you don’t have a reliable community for any reason, consider hiring professional help. You may be familiar with birth doulas, who offer continuous support during pregnancy and birth, but there are also postpartum doulas who offer the same kind of intimate and non-judgmental support as you transition into parenthood as well. You can do an online search for postpartum doulas in your area or go to DONA.org to search for professional support. Postpartum doulas not only help with practical and physical support, but also offer compassionate and empathetic support for the questions you may have and thoughts you need to verbalize about the birth experience and your changing emotions as well.