You’re in the ‘fourth trimester’ if you’ve just had a baby- and you might be feeling overwhelmed with advice from loved ones who have the best intentions. This is the only advice you need to read! Midwife Sarah Tooke from Sarah Tooke Childbirth & Parenting Education in Sydney reveals some important – and surprising – things new parents need to know about making it through the first few months with a new baby.
As a midwife, I spend a lot of time with people who are about to become parents, women who have just given birth, or who are embarking on their parenting journeys. From this experience, and my own, these are the top things new parents need to know about surviving the ‘fourth trimester’
1. There IS the ‘fourth trimester’- and it’s okay to spoil newborns
I often refer to the newborn period (or first three months of your baby’s life) as the ‘fourth trimester’. Your baby is still coming to terms with being out of the womb and in the big wide world. They are familiar with being close to you, being warm, hearing your voice, and getting jiggled around a lot. Do whatever feels right for you to comfort your newborn. You cannot spoil a child with your love and attention.
2. You are the best expert on your baby and your family
There are many topics where parents turn to experts for advice. Often this is related to tips about sleeping, feeding, and routines. These (often self-proclaimed) experts lie on a continuum of extremes, and regularly include rules in their advice. These rules can cause extreme anxiety for new parents, who may feel they are not doing things the ‘right’ way.
The truth is, you are the expert on your baby. If there is one golden rule I could give new parents it would be ‘follow your instincts by responding to your baby’s cues, and doing what feels right for your family (and only your family).’ If you are looking for some good-quality expert advice I highly recommend Robyn Barker’s book Baby Love, the government-funded Raising Children Network, and your local Maternal and Child Health Nurses.
3. Routine is a fluid concept in parenting
While it’s true that establishing a routine can help a baby feel secure and develop good sleep behaviours, routines might differ for every family depending on your needs and the needs of the baby.
For example, the night-time routine of dinner, bath, stories, cuddles and then bed is great. You can replicate this routine if you travel or if you leave your baby with other carers, and it will help baby feel secure. The feed-play-sleep routine can also be very useful. But what these routines look like in your house might be different to mine – they might happen at different times, in a different order, or with different steps.
Trying to rigidly follow any routine is a recipe for increased anxiety and frustration.
4. ‘Sleeping through the night’ is a misnomer
The official definition of ‘sleeping through the night’ is baby sleeping for a five-hour stretch without waking. Newborn babies will get hungry regularly, which affects their sleeping patterns. If by four months old your baby has one long cluster feed in the evening, followed by a long stretch of sleep, and then two smaller stretches then that is most definitely ‘sleeping through the night’. Depending on how you time your own sleep, this will involve you getting up once in the night. It is impossible to know exactly when your baby will start sleeping for twelve-hour stretches- and in fact, they might never do that.
Babies are individuals with individual needs, just like us. Some need more comforting when they sleep. When they are toddlers and preschoolers they will ask to go to the toilet, or have bad dreams, or come into your room for a cuddle. All of these things are perfectly normal.
The reality is you may need to wait a long time before you have uninterrupted sleep again, even beyond the ‘fourth trimester’. That’s small kids for you!
In the long run, it’s better to be prepared for changes so you can reduce your frustrations at the time. And remember, the type of milk they drink or how early they start on solids has no bearing on sleep. Don’t believe the anecdotes told to you by well-meaning friends and family! Also, sleeps begets sleep for small babies – so don’t worry if they spend most of the day sleeping. An overtired baby is very difficult to get to sleep, and they get overtired easily.
5. You will change, and your life will change
I hear many parents say that having a baby will not change them or their life, and that the baby will just ‘fit in’.
From my experience, I think it’s safe to assume that in the entire history of parenting this has never happened. You will go out at night less. You will start carrying around big bags and baby equipment. It will take an eternity to leave the house. You will have to time activities according to the feed and sleep needs of your baby. You will become less intimate with your partner (at least for a time) and more intimate with bodily fluids (your own and the baby’s). Your standards will drop and your values will change.
But you will also feel pure, unconditional love (not necessarily right away) that changes your heart and who you are forever. You will become more patient. You will live more in the present. You will have more fun. And you will appreciate the smallest things… like when your precious bundle lets out a big belly laugh for the very first time.