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The Fourth Trimester: What to Know About Postpartum

Understanding Postpartum Symptoms

Harvard Health Publishing, The New York Times, and The American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology (ACOG) all have a talking point in common; the Fourth Trimester. But why would a fancy medical journal, an established newspaper, and an obstetrics association have a common interest in a “new addition” to the pregnancy trimesters? The term “Fourth Trimester” is becoming increasingly adopted by mothers, brands, and even medical institutions, as it is clear that particular obstacles don’t become present until after children are born.

It is commonly understood that pregnancy can be broken down into three main trimesters. After all, the “tri” in the first part of the word means “three.” These sections of time are described as such:

  • The First Trimester - Weeks 1 to 12
  • The Second Trimester - Weeks 13 to 26
  • The Third Trimester - Weeks 27 to Birth

  • The fourth section of time would be considered the moment from birth to 12 weeks postpartum. At this stage, the baby has been born and its parents must adapt to awkward sleeping habits, the demands of breastfeeding, emotional changes, the aftermath of childbirth to the body, and so much more.

    Though the traditional trimesters follow the development of a child in the womb, they do not account for the child’s critical development after birth. Also, this portion of time between birth and 12 weeks is regarded as the most difficult in parenthood. How so? Well, imagine a screaming infant in your arms that you don’t know how to quiet, feed, or keep well-rested. Even the most devoted parents will find that the first four months are no cakewalk, and even the calmest babies can take a while to develop regular eating and sleeping patterns. But, if your first few months were easy and problem-free, you should buy a lottery ticket because you would be considered lucky!

    While the time after birth can be incredibly disruptive to the baby, mothers too can become overwhelmed by the sudden changes after giving birth. In some pregnancies, mothers can undergo emotional and physical changes that can make them feel vulnerable, misunderstood, or overpowered by the needs of their child. One of the most common post-birth effects for moms is sometimes called the “baby blues.” Some new mothers have been known to suffer from mood changes directly after birth, and by not addressing these changes, a mother’s emotional instability could have lingering depressive symptoms for years after their child is born. In fact, though emotional changes are common after giving birth, up to 1-in-7 mothers will experience postpartum depression.

    Changing Attitudes

    So, why is the fourth trimester important to acknowledge? Well, it wasn’t that long ago when medical professionals didn’t fully understand the process of childbirth and the effects of labor and delivery on new mothers. But there is good news! Attitudes are changing, which is why media outlets and medical associations are sharing similar talking points to spread awareness that a fourth trimester exists. By understanding that there is another piece to the process of pregnancy, more attention and aid can be focused on new mothers and their postpartum symptoms.

    For example, newborns are given regular check-up appointments to monitor health, habits, and development. In just one week, a newborn child will typically have a scheduled appointment to see a physician. But what about the mothers? Mothers will only be scheduled for a postpartum appointment 6-to-8 weeks after giving birth. That means for nearly the first two months, new mothers can be vulnerable to postpartum symptoms that they aren’t aware of or even understand.

    Common Question: Do I have postpartum symptoms?

    The Cleveland Clinic has found that nearly 50-75% of women report feeling depressed once their babies are born. Of this percentage, 15% of women developed postpartum depression that had lasting effects. Though the statistics can be daunting, being frightened isn’t really the goal for sharing this information with you. What is important to remember is that not everyone thinks they will have the baby blues, but if they prepare for their own emotional care after their baby is born, much of the struggles of the fourth trimester can be prevented. It also should be noted that not everyone experiences postpartum depression, so it is by no means a guaranteed symptom of birth.

    While the number ‘3’ can be a gravitational number, there is no denying that pregnancy can’t be sectioned out into three perfect stages. Real pregnancy can be complicated and vary from baby to baby. By limiting the trimesters to just three sections of time, the after-effects for the mother can be easily overlooked. Today, the fourth trimester is getting its overdue consideration and is being studied to help new families acclimate to the changes after giving birth.

    *If you are feeling the symptoms of postpartum depression, you are never alone. There are professionals from Postpartum Support International available to offer support and understanding for mothers all over the world. 1.800.944.4773.