What They Don’t Tell You: The Truth About the Fourth Trimester

My son, Kieran, was born one day after his due date on October 7, 2018.

In the month leading up to his birth, I prepared for his arrival – stocked the freezer with meals, set up the nursery, and read a book about how to care for babies.

I was all set.

Even as I arrived home from the hospital, I was confident we’d do just fine as a new little family.   I was in for a rude awakening.

Trouble was, Kieran would not sleep. The first night home, he screamed for hours. My husband and I took turns pacing the floor, flabbergasted. What should we do? We had already fed and changed him. He wouldn’t take a pacifier, and he wouldn’t settle in our arms.  

The next morning, I figured it out. It turns out Kieran wasn’t getting enough to eat because the nipple guard I used to breastfeed him was too big. The milk wasn’t making it into his mouth. At his pediatrician appointment that day, we found out he lost 1 full pound since birth. He went from 6 pounds 12 ounce to 5 pounds 11 ounces. I bawled. What a terrible mother I was that I let our baby go hungry!

Over the next couple of days, I nursed every two hours to get his weight back up. There was a moment it really hit me – I was a human cow. One night, Kieran fed from 7:30 pm – 12:30 am, nonstop. (This is normal, it’s called cluster feeding, and it helps regulate your milk supply). He probably would have gone longer, but I couldn’t take it anymore. I handed him off to my husband so I could get some sleep.

After the days of cluster feeding, I felt a huge relief. Now, I could put into practice the tactics I learned from that book. I was going to put Kieran on a schedule, so he was sleeping through the night by 8 weeks when I returned to work.   It was simple: feed him, play with him, lay him in the crib to sleep. He would nap peacefully for two hours and wake just in time for his next feeding.

The only thing was, he would not nap for me. Let me repeat: He. Would. Not. Nap. He’d cry and cry in the crib.   I tried rocking him, and I tried pacing the floor. Still, he fought me, screaming at the top of his lungs until his voice was hoarse. He’d flail his arms, push off me, and kick his legs. If I popped a pacifier in his mouth, he’d spit it out and cry harder. Sometimes (sometimes) if I stood by the dryer for 20-30 minutes he’d fall asleep on me.

Days & weeks passed and he wouldn’t nap.

One day, I called my sister sobbing. What was I doing wrong? She calmed me and reassured me, “You are both getting used to him being outside the womb. You’re doing fine. Try a swaddle.”

My other sister came to visit with pacifiers and taught me the ‘Batman’ swaddle technique. After listening to my woes, she said ruefully, “ You know they call it the fourth trimester for a reason.” (The first three months of a baby’s life earned this moniker for being notoriously challenging.)  

The next day, I tried the same swaddle technique she taught me. Kieran hated it and cried to the point of hysterics, and then didn’t sleep until bedtime that night. Traumatized, I refused to swaddle him again.

There were many tips and suggestions. Try the swing. Kieran laid wide-awake in the swing and did not sleep. Put him down drowsy but awake. He didn’t seem drowsy to me and he never just drifted off to sleep. He was always alert, looking around. Watch for his sleep cues; put him down at the first sign. He didn’t seem to make any, at least not to me. Sometimes he yawned, but when I put him in the crib, he didn’t fall asleep. Take him for a drive. This was hit or miss. I’d have to drive 30-40 minutes till he dozed off and it was a crapshoot if he’d stay asleep when we arrived home.

I was googling on the fly, while he was wailing in my arms, trying to figure him out. How do I know baby’s ‘wake window.’ How to treat baby gas. How to do a tummy massage. How much should baby be eating.

It didn’t help that moms in the online forum I joined were rejoicing that their children were sleeping through the night. I was following all the rules. Why wasn’t my son doing that? I saw another mom going about her Christmas season with her infant (same age as mine) like it was the most joyous time. She took him to chop down a Christmas tree for Pete’s sake! I, on the other hand, tried to shop at Target once with Kieran, but he started wailing as soon as I walked in the store. I went home without my goods because I couldn’t calm him.

I felt dejected. Sleep deprivation and hormones wreaked havoc on me. I didn’t want visitors; I didn’t want to go out of the house. People would say, “You must be enjoying this time so much!” or “I bet this is the best Christmas ever!” I forced a smile and a nod, but neither of those statements was true. I didn’t enjoy those first three months. In fact, I cried a lot.

I’m not quite sure of the word to use to describe how I feel. Shell shocked?

It’s like I’m emerging from a chaotic, tumultuous war zone, hair askew, spit-up stains on my shirt, and black bags under my eyes. There’s a tremendous feeling of relief that it’s behind me.

No one tells you what it’s really like having a newborn; people only made vague comments about sleep deprivation. I’m probably breaking some unspoken rule by writing this blog.  

My son is almost 4 months old now. I can’t recall how or when, but things gradually started getting easier. He started sleeping more extended periods at night and napping better for me. And, for the record, I should state that I love the Little Stinker so much my heart could burst.

What’s the moral of the story? Honestly, I don’t know.  

Maybe this much humbler first-time mom wants to impart some wisdom & encouragement to other first-time moms.   Some babies are harder than others, and you’re doing a great job. Give yourself a lot of grace. You too will survive.

And… you will be thinking about the next baby before you know it.

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I would like you to know that I consulted with my doctor during this period to discuss my mental health. We determined it was not post-partum depression, but likely a case of baby blues brought on by hormones and sleep deprivation. If unchecked, baby blues can lead to post-partum depression. I’m grateful for the support of my husband, sisters, and friends to get me through this tough time, so it did not come to that. If you are having a tough time after the birth of your baby, please, please let the people in your life know! Talk to your healthcare provider as well. You are not alone, and help is out there if you ask for it!

Photo courtesy of Tim Bish via Unsplash

Tags: fourth trimester, post partum