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Navigating the 4th Trimester

By Jillian Christofferson

You take all the classes, practice your breathing techniques nightly, read birth books, and pack your hospital bag with every little thing you could possibly need for a two night stay. You do the breaths, you call your doula, your partner navigates the potholes on your planned route like there’s a gold medal awaiting them in triage. A hiccup here, an unforeseen complication there, and 72 hours after your first contraction, you are in that thoughtfully assembled baby room, basking in the glow of a brand new baby. 

Now what? 

Infants are confounding. They all look vaguely like old men or potatoes, and yet we are drawn to them. The sweet smell of their disproportionately large heads, and those big blinking eyes. It’s a biological trick and it works like magic. They are so small and yet somehow their accoutrements take over your entire house. All they do is sleep and eat and it requires a minimum of 25 hours a day. “Sleep when baby sleeps” often feels like a sick joke, and it’s a rude awakening to discover that no diaper brand can contain the sheer force of liquid poo coming out of what is essentially a 7 pound glow worm with your dad’s nose. 

But my God, are they magic. It doesn’t make any real sense. I know there are people who don’t get it or are put off by all of it, but I will never fully understand them. I’ll use one of those snot sucker tubes with no fear. My youngest is 3 years old, and I still have one of those wraps that is basically just 60 feet of stretchy fabric in the event I may need to bust out my most fluid ninja skills and attach someone else’s child to my body. It’s made only slightly less weird when you know that I’m a birth worker.  

I have dilation charts, pelvic models and disembodied breasts for teaching childbirth education. I have a go-bag full of electric candles, granola bars, and bendy straws for attending births. I buy extra glass jars for bringing soups and stocks to new parents postpartum. I love birth and I’ve always loved babies. I was the parent who read all the books and reviewed research to make evidence-based decisions regarding the laundry list of birth choices that needed to be made. Then I came home from the birth center, sat my swollen self on the carefully selected rocker, snuggled my beautiful boy into my rock hard boobs and looked around. I hadn’t prepared for this part. 

The “4th trimester” is a term coined by Dr. Harvey Karp, in reference to the roughly 12 weeks of life post-birth. This period is unique in the outline of your new parent life for a few very important reasons. Most of those reasons lead back to the fact that human babies are effectively born too soon. Have you ever seen a giraffe give birth? A 150 pound wad of wet giraffe falls 6 feet to the groun, then attempts to stand on toothpick legs and finally walks over to join the tower. In contrast, human infants don’t walk or communicate in very effective ways and they really shouldn’t be dropped from great heights. Good luck getting them to participate in group activities. Our infants are smushy and helpless. They are born like this because they have comparatively massive skulls to house their incredibly useful brains. As any birthing person can attest to, nine months is about the max for the skull to pelvis ratio to still come out in favor of continued procreation. This means that for three months, newborn babies are basically fetuses living outside of the womb. It’s inconvenient for everyone. 

I actually knew all of this before I gave birth. What I failed to factor in is that I would be navigating my child’s unique needs while continuing to care for myself. I had 27 stitches in my vulva that everyone told me to wash gently and no one told me to dry thoroughly. So then, I had 27 stitches and a yeast infection! I had all the pads needed to soak up blood I knew would be coming for weeks, but until my Midwife showed me my placenta, I had no real idea of the enormity of the open wound inside my body where all that blood was coming from. I had one comically small box of nursing pads with no inkling that - considering how much I would use - I should have purchased stock in the company. It wasn’t like postpartum was some kind of natural disaster I wasn’t prepared for, it was that I was navigating so much of it in the dark. We treat new parents like the owners of show dogs when really they are raw humans in transformation. 

Imagine the scene all over again, but this time some of the books are about caring for your tender body and nervous soul. This time you make space for processing your birth story, and know which friend you should call when you can’t stop crying, even though everything is technically okay. You practice birth positions, and breathing techniques, but also sitting quietly. You teach yourself how to truly rest and be cared for in a world that appraises your worth based on your production value. That’s the postpartum I had the second time I gave birth. It healed parts of me I didn’t know were still raw, and instilled in me a sincere passion for educating and holding parents in their fourth trimester.

I will always adore newborns in all their strange and vulnerable ways, but now I love fresh parents for theirs too. 

About the Author

Jillian Christofferson is a birth worker and educator, craftsperson, and mother of two. Follow her on IG @jillian.christofferson.

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