How to prepare for the fourth trimester

It goes without saying that pregnancy is an emotional rollercoaster for both parents. Just when you thought you could breathe a little easier after your baby arrives, along comes the fourth trimester, a.k.a. the first three months after childbirth. As your newborn learns about the big new world, it’s also a significant time of change for mum and dad.

As first-time parents, there was no “honeymoon” period for my wife and I, post-delivery. After countless sleepless nights, tough days and long talks with my exhausted wife, this is what I learnt about what new mums go through right after giving birth. 

1. Her pre-pregnancy body is not coming back

fourth trimester pre-pregnancy body

On the third day after our baby was born, I found my wife scrolling through online shopping sites, looking not for baby or maternity necessities, but “skinny mirrors” that would make her look slimmer whenever she looked at her reflection.

In many ways, this mirrors a fact for many women after childbirth – their body might never bounce back. Weight gain, a saggy belly, hair loss and enlarged veins are some of the most common changes new mums go through. And try as they might, not all mums can recover their body shape faster than a deflating balloon.

Add to this a lack of sleep, as well as pains and discomforts such as belly cramps and vaginal soreness, and you can have a mummy who’s more irritable and sensitive to her physical appearance than usual. 

As a hubby, help her recognise, accept and adapt to her “new” body during this time. Simple gestures can go a long way – a hug to trigger those “cuddle hormones”, or exercising together to keep fit. Setting a regular schedule where you take over the baby caregiving duties can also allow her some precious uninterrupted sleep and “me” time.

Avoid comparing her with other mothers or her pre-pregnancy state. Also, keep your left-brain tendencies in check and don’t be too solution-focused by, for example, suggesting “fixes” like weight management or hair loss programmes.

2. The “baby blues” are real and that’s OK

As a new dad, it can often feel like you’re dealing with not one, but two new people in your life. Besides having a cranky baby on hand, your wife might have inexplicably gone from happy-go-lucky to moody, or morphed from a calm Mrs Fix-It to a self-professed bumbling mess.

fourth trimester baby blues

Enter the “baby blues”, which affects about 70% of new mums. These short, temporary episodes of sadness, anxiety and even anger can overwhelm the initial bliss of parenthood very quickly. This is made worse by the bodily changes and discomfort, as well as other factors such as changing hormonal levels.

As overwhelming as it seems, husbands needn’t freak out when the baby blues strike. Often, simply listening to her and acknowledging her emotions are enough. Again, do not attempt to “correct” what she’s feeling, which can come across as invalidating.

It is important, though, to differentiate baby blues from postpartum depression. While the former leaves a mummy feeling down or out of sorts, it usually resolves by itself within two weeks post-delivery. Postpartum depression, if untreated, can lead to serious implications for a mother’s mental health.

Crying non-stop, always feeling hopeless, and a refusal to bond with the baby are some of the signs that your wife may have more than just the blues, even if she’s usually emotionally and mentally strong. If this happens, discuss with her on whether to seek prompt medical help.

3. She’s worried about being a “lousy” mother

fourth trimester worries about being a lousy mother

Humans like to compare with each other; it’s part of our natural competitive instinct. So while Facebook and WhatsApp groups are useful for seeking advice and general chit-chat with other parents, they can be a double-edged sword – many new mums may end up making unnecessary comparisons with other parents and babies.

How much milk is my baby drinking vs yours? Is it okay that our baby is pooping less frequently? Why can’t I soothe my baby to sleep as easily as she can? 

A classic case of parental over-anxiety: when a fellow new mum learnt that our baby’s weight went from the 10th percentile to the 50th percentile within the first two months, she decided to supplement her breast milk with milk formula to “double the calcium intake”. This caused nipple confusion for her baby, who ironically then went on milk strike and lost weight as a result.

Moral of the story? Comparing with other babies can sometimes be counterproductive and cause undue stress. If in doubt, seek professional opinion to get a more objective assessment of how your child is doing.

Also, be more mindful of anything you say regarding your baby vs other tots. A seemingly innocuous remark, like how your friend’s baby is sleeping better through the night than yours, is probably not going to do wonders for your wife’s maternal confidence.

4. She’s not ready for meet-the-baby sessions

fourth trimester meet the baby sessions

During the good old days before Covid-19, baby showers, large gatherings and visits by well-meaning – or nosy – relatives and friends were the norm. Sure, bringing a new life into the world is a joyous occasion – but are celebrations that important so soon?

Imagine yourself as your wife: you’re tired, in pain, and deprived of your fave foods or simply taking a bath during confinement. Definitely not the best recipe for being the life of a party.

Still, especially in the Asian context, many mums may feel obliged to meet well-wishers. As husbands, we may even feel a tinge of resentment – why can’t my parents visit for a short while to see their first grandchild?

However, it’s important to realise that respecting your wife’s wishes should take priority over social obligations during this time. This is not an easy situation to manage by any means, but moderation is key here. 

Speak with your wife and play gatekeeper if necessary – defer visits when possible, or limit the duration of visits and act on her cues. If she’s trying to put the baby to sleep, it’s probably time for your visitors to leave.

5. Her partner is the main support she needs

fourth trimester support from partner

During the initial weeks after delivery, the mum is usually the “main” caregiver, especially for things such as breastfeeding which no one else could do. 

This is also the time when the husband would try to help as much as possible. As time goes on, mums may get additional help from parents or nannies. Consciously or not, many husbands – myself included –  then conveniently relegate ourselves to a secondary caregiver role.

Don’t assume all would be hunky dory at home just because your wife has an extra pair of hands to help her. Tension and conflict from things like how to take care of the baby and lifestyle habits can lead to problems and actually do more harm than good. This is especially so during the first few months, when everyone is still getting to grips not only with the baby, but also with each other.

Ultimately, both mum and dad need to parent equally; the former should not be considered the “primary” parent or caregiver. Other than the biologically impossible task of breastfeeding, there are many things that dads can, and should, step in to help.

As her partner, your wife needs your help and presence during this time more than ever, either for caregiving or simply as a peacemaker.

6. She’s not in the mood, and may not be for a while

Out of the many postpartum to-dos and to-learns, getting intimate again beneath the sheets is probably one of the last things on a new mum’s list. With the physical and emotional toll of motherhood, she probably only wants to do one thing in bed: sleep.  

fourth trimester not in the mood

Many women take three – six months after delivery to recover their libido. Your own urge may not be as affected, but this does not mean you should allow it to selfishly cloud the right thing to do. Give your wife as much time and space as needed until she’s ready, and never coerce her just to satisfy your own needs.

For a new mum, rediscovering her sexuality is often a gradual, subtle process. Husbands can try to build up the vibes and mood progressively, such as through dates, non-sexual intimacy and dialogue. As your baby settles into a more stable and predictable routine over time, you and your wife should have more time and energy for each other, including in the bedroom.

It’s also a good idea to get the all-clear from her doctor before resuming any sexual activity. Post-delivery conditions such as spotting and vaginal dryness can mean a painful or uncomfortable first few sessions for her. In more serious cases, nasties such as vaginal infections may also develop.

Supporting your partner post-pregnancy in the fourth trimester

fourth trimester support

Parenthood is not easy, and for both first-time and seasoned mums and dads, the fourth trimester can feel like a baptism of fire. But with mutual respect, mindfulness and honest communication, partners can turn it into an opportunity to know more about each other, and emerge as a stronger couple and family.

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