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Why We Should Give a Damn About the Fourth Trimester

Photograph by Twenty20

When I was in my third trimester of pregnancy, I stopped picking things up off the floor because the baby would stick up into my ribs, inside my giant belly, and I thought I was almost done. Turns out, I had one more trimester to go, but at least this time, my daughter would be outside of my body and not giving me raging heartburn and restless legs.

This fourth trimester, I learned, was proposed by Dr. Harvey Karp, the one who teaches the five S’s for soothing a newborn and the author of the book that saved my sanity, "The Happiest Baby on the Block." Originally thought of to explain colic in newborns, the fourth trimester is that three-month period after birth when your baby needs you the most. And it's not talked about nearly as much as it should be.

When my daughter was born, I instinctively knew my baby needed to be close to me. It was hard, especially in the first few weeks, watching someone else hold her. All I wanted to do during my birth recovery was lay skin-to-skin with her on the couch under a blanket watching Netflix.

We need to give new moms the permission that it's OK to lay around with their baby and do nothing else.

Fortunately, we as parents now understand that you can never spoil a baby too much by constant holding. In fact, the more you hold your baby, the easier this fourth trimester transition is for them.

Dr. Karp says on his website to think of your baby as a fetus outside of the womb and that newborns aren't ready to be out in the big scary world yet. In realizing this, suddenly the five S's (swaddle, side or stomach position, shush, swing and suck) made sense to me. I had to mimic what was going on inside my uterus once my baby was born—but no one ever explained it to me in any birthing class.

You see, in the womb, babies are never cold or hungry. They have the constant white noise of our bodily noises and heartbeat, and they are lulled to sleep by our movements during the daytime, when moms are up and moving around. When babies are born, according to Dr. Karp, they're not ready and they still need everything they had in the womb. It explained my daughter wanting to nurse around the clock, her constant need to be snuggled even though the dishes were piling up, and her incessant wish to sleep stretches only in her swing as it rocked gently back and forth.

When I learned this, when I understood the biological need for our babies to have an environment as close to the inside of our bodies as possible, I realized how important those first three months of your baby's life are. We need to give new moms the permission that it's OK to lay around with their baby and do nothing else, to strap them into the baby carrier as much as possible when they're out and about and, if breastfeeding, to let them nurse as often as they want during those first three months.

While an understanding of this fourth trimester is so important for our babies' adjustment to life outside the womb, I realize not everyone has this option. Postpartum depression, life circumstances and short maternity leaves are difficult obstacles. But sometimes just being aware that it's OK to be as close to our newborn as possible during this time can be so beneficial for both mom and baby.

I have no regrets about doing any of it. And, Mom, neither should you.

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