The fourth trimester describes the concept of allowing your baby to get used to life outside the womb. Before your baby was born, they were enveloped in a world of subdued light, constant but muffled sounds, constantly held and supported, never experiencing what it is to be cold or hungry.

Compare this to their environment now, a world of bright lights, unfiltered noise, fluctuating temperatures, sensations of hunger and thirst, and periods where they may not be held and supported.

Your baby’s expectations of life post birth are that it will be like life before birth, they have no other experience to compare it to. In those first weeks following birth they are getting used to their new environment, and it can be very overwhelming, everything is new except you, you are their comfort their protector, they know they are safe with you.  This is a time to empathise and communicate with your baby that you understand it’s hard but that you will be there for them, helping them to feel safe and secure.

What does the research say about the 4th trimester?

As a concept itself it’s not something that has been researched but the elements of responsive have been well researched:

  • Feeding to cue rather than scheduling.
  • Picking up and comforting your baby if they are unsettled or upset.
  • Allowing your baby to sleep when they are tired, rather than scheduling sleep.
  • Talking to your baby.

These aspects of responsive care are often at odds with modern baby care advice where parents are advised to put babies down drowsy but awake, encourage self-soothing, routines, limiting contact overnight, the multitude of gadgets available that encourage us to put babies down (things that bounce, vibrate, swing, rock, squeak, flash).

But what do babies actually need? I love this quote from Unicef:

New babies have a strong need to be close to their parents, as this helps them to feel secure and  loved. When babies feel secure they release a hormone called oxytocin, which acts like a fertiliser for their growing brain, helping them to be happy babies and more confident children and adults.  

Holding, smiling and talking to your baby also releases oxytocin in you, which helps you to feel calm and happy.

Building a happy baby: A guide for parents – Unicef

How can you support your baby through this period?

Put yourself in your baby’s position, think about the environment your baby was in before birth and try to replicate some its features, here are some ideas to get you started:

  • Subdued lighting.
  • Soft and gentle background noise.
  • Feeding in response to your baby’s cues rather than to a schedule.
  • Using a sling or baby carrier.
  • Skin to skin snuggles.
  • Movement and motion.
  • Going for a walk.

We are developing a deeper understanding about how responsive care supports a baby’s growing brain and helps them to understand the world around them. Responsive care is about observing your baby, interpreting their behaviour and acting to support them.

Jess Racklyeft for the Centre for Perinatal Psychology

Your baby is trying to tell you something, by being with them and spending time getting to know them you will soon start to understand their cues, be able to read their body language and respond to their needs swiftly and efficiently.

Observe your baby’s behaviour, their movements, their mood, the noises they make, take not of the small changes in their demeanour.

Interpret: what could these changes in behaviour mean? could they be hungry? need a nappy change? be too hot or cold? want to be picked up or put down?

Act on their cues, as often as you can, talk to them as you do giving voice and language to their feelings and situation.

How can a doula help in the 4th trimester?  

A postnatal doula can be on hand to support you in your transition through the 4th trimester whether it’s your first baby or fifth, we can fill many roles and functions but primarily we support you to become the parent you want to be with practical, emotional and non judgemental support. This can be especially useful in the 4th trimester when you and your baby are just getting used to each other. Around the world this is a period where new mothers are encouraged to rest and recuperate whilst getting to know their new baby. In a more dispersed society we don’t always have the support we need from family and friends to facilitate this, and this is where the support of a doula can be beneficial.

As a doula I can offer practical support around the home, with older children, supporting you as you get to know your new baby. I can offer compassion and empathy without judgement as you find your way, listening and reassuring.

If you would like to know about how I could support you in the 4th trimester and beyond feel free to get in touch.

Some links to further reading that are relevant to the 4th trimester

Building a happy baby: A guide for parents

The Fourth Trimester – AKA Why Your Newborn Baby is Only Happy in Your Arms

Help! I Can’t Put My Baby Down

Speaking for the Baby Campaign: Centre for Perinatal Psychology

The Fourth Trimester and Babywearing – The Parent’s Body Is The Child’s First Habitat

Responsive parenting: interventions and outcomes, Bulletin of the World Health Organization 2006

LLL: Letting babies cry – the facts behind the studies

Infant Sleep Information Source – Normal infant sleep development

4 Important Baby Cues -Learn These To Understand Your Baby

The Dangerous Game of the Feeding Interval Obsession

Responsive Parenting Nurtures Infants’ Secure Attachments

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