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No One Warned Me About the Fourth Trimester

Heather Neal sits in a hospital bed, holding her swaddled newborn close.
image source: heather neal

In the weeks after my son was born, I found myself frantically Googling ways to calm my screaming infant on almost a daily basis.

I quickly learned two things.

One, was that my son had reflux; the incessant all-day screaming was not, as I naively thought as a new mom, normal. And two, was that plenty of experts and moms agree that there’s a sort of “fourth trimester” following the standard three trimesters of pregnancy — a period we don’t often hear much about.

The so-called fourth trimester occurs in the first few months after birth, when an infant still needs extra comfort and coddling as they continue to develop and adapt to life outside the womb. During this time, newborns respond well to “sshhing” sounds, similar to the sounds they were used to in utero; they need lots of tight cuddling, swaddling, and holding; and they need a little extra help to get used to the outside world.

While many of the “techniques” used to help newborns through this period come instinctually, sometimes just learning about its potential existence and ways to deal with it can be life-changing for new parents struggling with what to do and how to adapt.

But there’s one more part of the fourth trimester that these experts, books, and blogs don’t seem to touch upon: Mom. More specifically, Mom’s body image.

It’s understandable that women go through a huge spectrum of thoughts and feelings based on their changing body throughout pregnancy.

Some first-time moms are just wishing for that bump to appear beneath their shirt, while some veterans are wishing it would stay hidden just a little bit longer. Some women are able to take all the changes in stride, not letting it affect their view of themselves or how they feel about their body, while others struggle greatly with the day-to-day changes that come trimester after trimester.

In the early weeks, some women struggle because pregnancy often starts out with that awkward “fat-or-pregnant?” stage, where you look like you could maybe be pregnant, or that perhaps you just ate a big lunch (or two). It can be hard to dress for a newly emerging bump when you’re not big enough for maternity clothes but your pre-pregnancy clothes don’t fit right.

Further along into pregnancy, it can be even harder for women to adjust to their new size. Some women end up with huge bellies while others seem to carry the baby weight all over. Regardless, it’s a completely different look and feeling from before pregnancy, and even if you can appreciate what your body is capable of and all the amazing things that’s happening to it, it can still be a lot to handle.

But then you have the baby, and everything’s back to the way it was … right?

Only, it’s not.

You may walk out of the hospital with less weight on your frame than you carried going in, but you’re far from your starting line. Not only are you sore and tired and perhaps feeling like you’ve just run a marathon, but the clothes you came in with may no longer fit — along with the rest of your current wardrobe.

Of course, people expect your body to change rapidly in the first few days after giving birth. No one will blink twice when you stay in pajamas and yoga pants, because not only are you too tired to get dressed properly, nothing else fits.

The real hard part, though, is the weeks and months that follow. The ones where you don’t look or feel anything like your pre-pregnancy self, and you can’t quite articulate the emotions that come along with that.

Even the most confident woman can be left struggling.
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Your belly may still be a little flabby or look like a deflated balloon that had been stretched out for too long.

Your chest may be a different size as your milk comes in, regulates, or even dries up.

Your hips may be in a different place than they were when you were a teenager.

Your weight may or may not get close to where it started; but even if it does, you don’t carry it the same.

On top of everything else, you can’t just jump back into the exercise or self-care routine you used to have because now you have the added element of taking care of a baby (or babies).

Even the most confident woman can be left struggling. Every day is a constant battle with yourself: what you feel like, what you look like, what you think others think you look like. Even if you invest in a new “in-between” wardrobe so you can have a selection of flattering clothes in the right size, figuring out the “right” size is a struggle all its own.

Every morning starts with a frantic search through your closet, with much of it ending up discarded distastefully in a pile on the floor. And forget it if you have to dress up for a special event or something out of the norm.

For months after I gave birth to my son, I needed a different sized bra based on the time of day. Since I didn’t have time for multiple wardrobe changes, that meant I was either looking frumpy or like I squeezed into my top at any given point in the day. Even when my old pants technically fit, they were the most unflattering cut and fit for my new shape. The idea of buying new clothes was depressing and daunting, and at times, felt futile.

But I carried on; and all the while, I reminded myself what a beautiful thing my body had just done and the amazing result I had snuggled in my arms because of what it’d been through. I tried to keep all the positive things at the front of my mind, but really, what helped the most, was knowing that the mom down the street was going through the exact same thing. So was the mom at preschool and the one at the grocery store and even the one on the beach in a bikini.

The fourth trimester is hard on little babes, but it’s hard on us moms, too.

So if you’re deep in the early days of parenthood, struggling to get through this fourth tri in one piece, please know this: You’re not alone, and it’s going to be okay.

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