The Fourth Trimester

The Fourth Trimester is the immediate 12 week period after giving birth. An extremely sensitive and delicate time for both baby and mother. This important time is often overlooked in Western cultures. We don’t do the Fourth Trimester with much care or reverence. There’s a “back in the saddle” / super mum mentality and a pervasive message that returning to normality fast is desirable and optimal.

This couldn’t be further from the truth. We have a story to rewrite here.

While it’s appealing to get lost in your birth preparations and planning, and then there’s all the cute baby things, the pram, the carrier, the steriliser, the breast pump (which ones do I choose?!!) and every other baby item ingeniously marketed to our biological urge to care for our babes.

The new story that I’d encourage you to adopt is guided by the 5 universal postpartum needs of new mothers, and goes something like this…

Have a period of confinement (sequestered rest) of around 30-40 days, where you, the newborn mother, are cared for like a newborn baby. Rooted in traditional Chinese medicine beliefs, you will follow a set of specific lifestyle and dietary guidelines to help you recover from the stresses of childbirth.

In Chinese medicine, childbirth is considered synonymous with imbalance, as it involves a significant loss of blood, causing a new mother’s body to enter a state of yin. Cold food and drink must be cut from the diet, while bathing and exposure to wind is discouraged as the body is more susceptible to the cold.

The postnatal period is also treated as a crucial window of recovery for the mother, who is encouraged to rest throughout her confinement. Cooking, household chores and care of the baby is passed on to hired help, alongside older family members, usually the mother and mother-in-law.

This “Sacred Window” – the immediate month or so after childbirth is foundational for a woman’s health beyond the childbearing years.

Why is this immediate period after birth so fundamental? The first 40 days is said to lay the foundations for a mother’s health for the next 40 years! If the first 40 days are spent in rest, receiving nourishing foods, support from loving people and genuine spiritual and emotional tending, then her health will reflect that nurturance for the next 40 years. If the new mother received minimal care, or, it was sub-optimal, for example; if there wasn’t a rest period, or it was insufficient to be restorative, then the woman’s health can reflect that deficit over time. I am not saying this to make you feel bad, or concerned, if you had a postnatal period previously that was not restful and nourishing. You are not broken, you can provide your body and spirit with reparations now, but the best outcome will flow from planning for your optimal care and nurturing immediately after birth.

In her book, The Fourth Trimester, Kimberley Ann Johnson outlines 5 universal needs for women postnatally that support a woman’s thriving, not just surviving.

1. An extended period of rest

The potency of this extended rest period cannot be underestimated. It’s a period of deep healing (where lifelong illnesses can be resolved), or a period where a woman can become vulnerable to diseases that take a lifetime of attention.

This rest period is not only physically supportive of the body and organs returning to optimal position, and the nervous system recalibrating, it’s also critical to ensure that you’re able to bond with your baby. A lying in period will give you the best opportunity of establishing breast-feeding and optimal milk supply. This time is also important for protecting and bolstering your baby’s immunity. By providing an environment with lot’s of skin to skin contact, your baby’s microbiome and gut health will be supported to be robust.

This period helps you become familiar with, and understand your baby’s cues. It’s also honouring your baby’s need for deep rest and closeness after a huge shift in environment for their system and body, the merger from womb to world ain’t easy! The closer your baby can be to you during this period, the better. This lying in period honours this – for both of you.

2. Nourishing foods

Food is medicine. Particular types of food are recommended during this time. The yin deficiency which prevails after birth requires warming foods that help complete cleansing of the uterus to eliminate old blood, rebuild strength and support the establishment of producing milk. Since a new mother is vulnerable to cold and wind, she needs foods that are both warm in temperature and that have an internal warming effect.

In China, women are fed special soups, first for elimination and ease of digestion, and then to rebuild blood and life force. In Korea, soups are made with many kinds of seaweed, which is full of rich minerals. While there are variations in ingredients and spices from culture to culture, what the postpartum foods have in common, across cultures, is that they are warming, easy to digest, mineral rich and collagen dense.

The book, the First 40 Days – The Essential Art of Nourishing the New Mother by Heng Ou is an incredible resource with recipes and ideas for your sacred window.

3. Loving touch

The loving hands of an experienced body worker will help your organs return to optimal position, help boost oxytocin and other hormones, settle your nervous system and help to flush the lymph and aid circulation.

Asian cultures pamper new mothers. In Korea, a new mother gets a massage every day for 40 days to help restore organ position and circulation. In India, women receive abhyanga, circulatory massage with herbal-infused oils, from sisters and aunts. In Mexico, women are taken through a “closing of the bones” ceremony that includes massage, herbal steam, cathartic release, and being tightly wrapped. In the Indo-Malay tradition, women’s bellies are intricately wrapped, and that practice is now also in Singapore, India, Nepal, Taiwan, and Hong Kong too.

It’s important to have caring touch, whichever tradition you decide to incorporate into your healing.

4. Time in Nature

Nature mirrors back a slowness and rightness with the essence of just being. Slowing down can be challenging for so many of us, accustomed to a fast pace with technology, but the Fourth Trimester demands presence and a letting go of the usual speed and pace of life. Nature can be a comfort and antidote to tension we may have in our body during this slower pace time.

While hiking in nature or camping trips are not practical, spending small amounts of time outdoors in your immediate surroundings, or even setting up a breastfeeding chair near a window with a view. Using herbs and essential oils can provide an accessible and convenient, immediate connection to nature, even if getting outdoors is not possible. 

Wearing no shoes (if the climate allows) on the ground for even 5 minutes a day can help you earth and ground your energy. Visualise the energy of mother earth traveling into the soles of your feet and flooding your body with rich support.

Connect to the elements of nature where you’re able to – rug up to be outside if it’s chilly, and take some deep belly breaths of fresh air. Open the window. Sit in the sunlight. Dip your feet in the ocean. Lie on the grass next to your baby. Have some indoor plants around to support you. However you’re able to lap up some of the bounty of the earth is perfect.

Postnatally, I provide mothers I support with herbal sitz bath infusions, and herbs for yoni (vaginal) steaming once fresh bleeding has ceased. I also offer essential oils that support that mothers emotional requirements post birth. Every woman is different. Plants are magical sentient helpers for healing.

5. Company with wise women

Surrounding yourself with company that nourishes you spiritually is very important. Being left alone with a baby in the early weeks can be confronting and disturbing for some women. We are not meant to be alone at this vulnerable time. Postnatal depression, depletion and other mental health issues are prevalent and I believe this is due to the sense of isolation most mothers feel.

Feeling a sense of belonging and having the support of wise women who understand the critical importance of you having this very unique company will serve you well. The identity shift that accompanies becoming a mum, is huge. Unfortunately, we don’t really acknowledge, or support this transformation in our culture, resulting in mums feeling alienated and alone.

Start to make lists of the women and people you’d like to surround yourself with, and have regular contact with during this period. How can they be in your life during that time? Investigate mothers groups and start to build some networks of support before you’re in the thick of the postnatal time. It takes a village. Starting to create that village for yourself provides a buffer and network for you to lean into.

This truly is a time for you to be mothered as much as you’ll be mothering your new babe 24/7. “Mothering the mother”, is what all new mothers need at this time of unique vulnerability. Ideally, a new mother has a person who can hold space for the changes, and challenges that inevitably arise during this huge transformation and rebirth of the woman herself.

When a woman has an accepting and nurturing relationship with her mother, then she is often the best person to provide a container for the alchemical processes that transform a woman into a mother. However, you may not have such a relationship with your mother, or, your own mother is simply unavailable, or unable to provide the support. In this case, consider a doula. Even where your own mother is available, the added support of a doula can be so helpful as the support a doula offers is likely to be more specialised and sensitive to specific postnatal maternal issues.

I provide postnatal doula support alone, or the whole spectrum of support from prenatal – birth – postnatal. Check out my packages here. I offer a complimentary chat. If you’d like to discuss how I work, and whether I can support you, just send me an email.

Image above by Barefoot Birth.

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