You may have heard of the fourth trimester.
Basically, it’s the idea that the first 3 months of life are very much an extension of life in the womb for a baby. Baby has spent 40 weeks (or there abouts!) having her every need attended to. She never knew hunger, was always rocked, and could always hear Mama’s heartbeat.
Given that, it seems pretty unrealistic to expect a newborn baby to adjust to life on the outside instantly. That’s why attempts at scheduling newborns or unrealistic expectations about sleep frustrate parents more often than not.
What I’ve found to be true (and what many I know have found as well) is that your best bet in the fourth trimester is to let go of your need to schedule and instead follow your baby’s cues. Even if you’re very much a type-A personality (a huge planner), make a conscious effort to let go of the need for certainty and control.
Follow your baby’s cues about when he needs to eat, when (and where!) he needs to sleep, when he needs to be held, and so on. As a result, you’ll be much more relaxed and happy mama, and you’ll have a more content and happy baby. You will enjoy your newborn.
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Chasing a toddler around while caring for a newborn makes things a bit more interesting. While it’s true that you will not have nearly as much time to simply stare at your newborn and marvel at his/her presence, you’ll find that these fourth trimester “rules” are even more important to keep in mind as you juggle the needs of two children.
So, what are the keys to life in the fourth trimester?
1. Give Lots of Snuggles
Babies are born used to the daily rhythm of mama’s movements. So it makes sense that they would protest at attempts to transition them suddenly to a stationary object like a crib or bassinet.
The popularity of baby swings and bouncers attests to the universal need babies have for motion. Swings and bouncers certainly have their place, but nothing substitutes for mama’s (or daddy’s) arms.
As much as new parents would love to just sit and hold their newborns, that’s certainly not realistic (especially if you happen to have one of those toddler creatures running around).
Enter the baby carrier. Mama gets her hands and mobility back, and the baby gets snuggled and rocked – everyone is happy.
Few things calm a fussy baby as well as being worn; the upright tummy-to-tummy position provides much relief to babies suffering from reflux or gas (more so than the semi-seated position of bouncers, swings, and car seats).
You certainly don’t have to wear your baby 24/7 to reap the benefits, but a good carrier (see my baby carriers for newborns curated list) is a must-have for the fourth trimester care and beyond.
If you’re completely new to babywearing or just want to refresh what you know about baby carriers, how to choose an ergonomic option, and how to wear your baby the safe way, check out my Babywearing Guide.
Moby Classic Baby Wrap (Popular Newborn-Friendly Option)
2. Feed on Demand
Regardless of how you feed your baby – breastfeeding, pumping, formula, or some combination – feeding a newborn on demand is key not only to the baby’s happiness but also to the baby’s growth and well-being.
Just like adults, babies’ calorie needs change from day to day; during growth spurts, babies will need to eat more and more frequently. Instead of counting ounces or watching the clock, learn to watch your baby for hunger cues. And don’t be surprised if your newborn wants to eat an hour or less after her last feeding. Newborns have tiny tummies!
If you are breastfeeding, this on-demand feeding is crucial in the early weeks. Breastfeeding is a supply and demand business; nursing often is key to building a good breastmilk supply. If you’re interested in increasing your breast milk supply, check out these milk-boosting foods list.
Newborns are also notoriously slow and lazy nursers, so it may feel like nursing is all you are doing in those first few weeks. They will get faster, though! In the meantime, enjoy the extra opportunity to rest and snuggle.
One exception to the feed-on-demand rule – newborns need to nurse every 2-3 hours around the clock until they regain their birth weight. This may mean you need to wake them to feed, as brand-new babies can be very sleepy (particularly if they are at all jaundiced). Once they hit birth weight, you can let them go longer stretches, although you may want to avoid letting them go too long during daytime hours in order to avoid extended night wakings.
3. Let Go of Sleep Expectations
Sleep is probably the number one concern of new parents.
It seems like the first thing anyone asks a new mama is “Is baby a good sleeper?” My favorite reply is “She sleeps like a baby” – delivered with a smile, of course. And by that, I mean she wakes several times throughout the night to eat or just to be reassured – and that’s completely normal.
Meredith Small’s Our Babies, Ourselves gives an interesting perspective on sleep expectations in Western cultures. She contends that babies are biologically hardwired for night waking and echos the work of sleep researcher Dr. James McKenna and others who have shown that safe co-sleeping and bed-sharing practices actually reduce the risk of SIDS.
Baby Sign Language Made Easy (Bestseller)
What to Expect the First Year by Heidi Murkoff
Small also discusses cultures that not only share sleep spaces but also wear their children for much of the day.
Many parents express concern over “getting baby to nap in the crib.” Not that it’s bad for a baby to nap in the crib, but it’s also not bad or wrong for a baby to nap while being worn. Even if you aren’t on board with rocking your year-old to sleep or wearing your 10-month-old for naps (and there’s nothing wrong if you are on board), wearing or holding your baby for sleep in the fourth trimester isn’t going to create “bad habits” that can’t be broken. Babies need to sleep and babies sleep best snuggled up to loving caregivers.
Of course, mama needs to sleep too – and that’s where much of the concern over “sleeping through the night” comes from. Adjusting your expectations about sleep may also mean changing some of your sleep habits. If the baby has her longest stretch of sleep from 8 pm to midnight – maybe you need to adjust your own bedtime temporarily to take advantage of that.
Sharing a sleep space can also help with mama’s sleep deprivation since it cuts down on the amount of time mama has to be awake and most likely will help baby sleep longer stretches too.
It also helps to remember that this stage won’t last forever. All babies will sleep longer stretches eventually. If you let go of the expectation that your baby should sleep 8 hours or more straight by 2 or 3 months, it’s a little easier to handle those night wakings; it feels much better to consider your baby’s behavior as “normal” instead of trying to figure out what you are doing “wrong.”
4. Think About Routines Instead of Schedule
Just because you’ve decided to follow the baby’s cues doesn’t mean your life will be devoid of order. Babies are pretty good at falling into a routine and there are simple things we can do to encourage that development.
Many newborns are born with their days and nights confused (makes sense when you consider they spent their days in the womb lulled to sleep by your movement and nights more awake when you were sleeping and still). You can nudge them towards sorting out their sleep habits by keeping things dark and quiet at night (during feedings, diaper changes, night wakings, etc.) and bright and “noisy” during the day.
You shouldn’t blast Netflix while your baby is napping (ok, that might happen from time to time) but don’t make a big effort to stay quiet during the day. This has the added bonus of making your baby able to sleep almost anywhere and through anything (at least when she’s worn) – particularly handy when you need to be out and about with your toddler. So, you’ll be able to grab your newborn diaper bag with all the essentials and make trips even with a newborn. All babies will have different tolerances for noise levels, of course, but in general, you can be “louder” during day sleep.
Many babies respond well to a bedtime routine. While your life with a newborn isn’t going to have a set-in-stone sleep schedule or bedtime, you can incorporate the same nightly rituals into your evenings – maybe a bath or massage or favorite book or lullabies.
Remember that many babies will have an evening “witching hour” – these calming rituals can help alleviate that. Many newborns will also want to cluster feed in the evenings, so take that into account when thinking about your own evening activities – a good book or catching up on your Netflix might be the way to go.
Some parents are big fans of routines that demand babies eat, play, and sleep in a particular order (the concern is that eating should never lead to sleeping). I would recommend you join the “Mother Nature made nursing sleep-inducing for a reason” camp – if your baby falls asleep nursing – fine. If she doesn’t, that’s ok too. Better to read the baby’s cues and not try to force a particular order of events.
It is helpful to watch for the baby’s tired signs and help her back to sleep before she becomes overtired (and therefore less likely to sleep).
For early fourth-trimester babies, the entire “wake” period may be consumed by eating so trying to prevent them from falling asleep on the breast seems especially silly.
5. Don’t Worry About Creating “Bad” Habits
Yup, it’s true – you can not spoil a newborn! No matter how much you rock, cuddle, wear, or hold your baby, she is going to turn into an independent little person. Children are not spoiled by love and affection; they thrive on it.
The fourth trimester is a time for mama to heal and for a newly expanded family to get to know one another. Some mamas refer to this time as a “babymoon.” Much like a honeymoon for newlyweds, the fourth trimester shouldn’t be about schedules or expectations. Instead, it – and our babies – should be greeted with patience and wonder. Happy postpartum!
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