Saturday, June 27, 2015

Why I’m Tired of Hearing about the so-called 4th Trimester

I’ve heard it again and again—like’s it’s some ground-breaking discovery—that the first 3 months of a child’s life is like the 4th trimester of pregnancy. Babies really aren’t ready to be born and they are only born because the body can’t hold them any longer. So, parents need to understand that during these first 3 months, the baby should feel warm, safe, and close. This will best help them adjust to life outside of the womb.
And I am well aware that referring to the baby’s life this way is so that parents can understand how to better soothe a disgruntled infant. I’m also aware that many people have found this very helpful to them and probably don’t want to hear me knock it down. So, if you are one of those people, stop reading now. I have my own opinions and I’m using my own space to express them. I’m going off of my experience and point-of-view alone. If you don’t take issue with the 4th trimester explanation, I have no problem with that either. But I do, and I am really sick and tired of hearing it constantly as if someone is a professional on these things and needs to school me.
Okay, okay. Of course all of this makes sense. The baby would have problems adjusting to the world. For crying out loud (no pun intended), he or she has been in the womb for 9 months. And this is all the baby has ever known. Wouldn’t it make complete sense that being born and experiencing the very opposite of that for the first time would be unsettling? Isn’t that obvious? If I were to move to a foreign country for 9 months and drench myself completely in the culture, it would take time to adjust to coming back home. And if my entire life had been that for 9 months and I had known nothing else, I might have a REALLY HARD time adjusting. I might cry. I might want to go back. I’d have to figure out a whole new way of doing things. Maybe it would take at least 3 months. Maybe it would take even longer than that. After all, we are individuals one person’s ability to adapt to something will vary from another person’s. That would explain why some perfectly healthy babies are excessively fussy and others are mellow. Some don’t take long to absorb their new world and take it for what it is. Others struggle to cope with every new thing—and often take even more than 3 months. I’d argue that 3 months is just an average for how long it takes the average baby to adjust to life outside the womb. But what is an average baby anyway? Because I have yet to meet one. We love to agree that people have a wide variety of personalities, but then we try to group babies together as if they are all the same.
So, here’s my beef. Those who write books and build parenting advice based on the 4th trimester tend to hold a belief that the baby isn’t ready to be born and should really still be in the womb for another 3 months. I beg to differ. I think maybe a child born at 30 weeks gestation might still need to be in the womb. Perhaps even one born at 36 weeks would still need to be in the womb. But the same people that hold to the truths that nature works things out the way they are supposed to go are the ones who go on about the 4th trimester. So if my body naturally knows when to go into labor, if my baby is fully developed and everything is ready for the outside world, why is my baby not ready to be born? I think the baby is ready to be born by at least 38 weeks gestation. I don’t think there was some mistake there or that our bodies were designed ineffectively to carry the baby as long as the baby needed to be carried. In fact, I believe if the baby were in there another 3 months, it would probably take the baby even longer to adjust to life outside the womb because then he or she would have been in there for a whole year.  God didn’t make a mistake.
So, here’s how I see it. The first 3 months after a child is born are not the 4th trimester of pregnancy. They are the 1st trimester of the 1st year of life. I observed this in my son, I am observing this in my daughter, and I have seen it in countless other babies I have help take care of.
During the 1st trimester of the 1st year of life, a child is becoming acquainted with a new environment. New sounds, smells, lights, etc. are going to be scary. The child is going to be most settled and happy with whatever is the most familiar to life before this. We replicate the womb environment as much as possible to help the baby adjust. Many of us swaddle, wear the baby in a sling, hold the baby close, or practice other habits that help the baby feel like everything out here is just as okay as it was in there. We try to tend to every need as quickly as possible. But I also believe in not always doing this. I believe the baby is in the outside world and I’m not going to pretend she is not. She will stretch out on the floor, a quilt on a lawn, the bed, etc. from time to time to enjoy exploring things she can do like lifting up her head and rolling. We will talk to her, read to her, sing to hear, and interact with her. She can learn there are a lot of sounds to enjoy. I don’t feel the need to recreate the womb environment entirely. One huge argument I have for this is bath time. Both of my babies screamed at their first bath…”What is this? What are you doing with me? I have never had this before!” And then by the next bath, it’s suddenly wonderful. “Oh this is warm and comfortable. I can relax in here.” If I avoided the bath because the baby was not accustomed to it, I’m not doing my baby any favors. I’m not going to avoid all things that result in tears the first time just because they are new. This is the chance for me to show my child that these things are fine and aren’t horrible just because they are new. Life isn’t the womb and doesn’t need to always be like the womb.
So, for me, I have decided to ignore anything about the first 3 months being a 4th trimester. Instead, this is how I look at it. The first year has 4 trimesters.
0-3 months- Observation—The baby takes in the world by observation. What he or she sees is the foundation of what life is for him or her. Is my mom frazzled every time I cry? Or is my mom calm when I cry? The baby sees these things. The baby’s vision is developing. I can see my mom, dad, siblings, etc. Who are these people? As each of us interacts with her, she learns we are all people she can trust. We interact with her to engage her brain in language even if she can’t speak yet. She is absorbing and watching everything.  Social smiles start. The baby starts cooing. The baby stops crying when Mommy or Daddy picks her up. All of these mental and emotional interactions are being acquired. And I do believe that crying is the foundation for communication. So a baby starts learning through crying that she can get her mommy’s attention. And she starts to fine-tune her crying to communicate to her mommy exactly what she needs.
3-6 months- Interaction—The baby starts to interact with the world more. He or she beings to grab at toys, and possibly start rolling around. The baby’s first laugh is often heard now. The baby makes even more babbling noises and sounds. The baby learns to sit up (my son learned to crawl during this time). The world begins to become about interacting.  “Colic” goes away for most babies during this time because the baby has physically and mentally developed beyond it.
6-9 months- Exploration—Here’s when crawling often starts. During this time, the baby can’t help but explore. His or her mind is wired for it. They have mastered picking up toys and now put everything in their mouth to experience it. Teeth are often cut at this point and the baby starts solid food—exploring new tastes and textures. Eating becomes something completely different than what it previously was. But the baby’s body is ready for it now. Babies start pulling themselves up and cruising the furniture. My son began walking right at the end of this one.
9-12 months- Engaging—Now that the baby has observed life, learned interaction, and begun to explore, it’s time to take on the world. Babies begin engaging with the world at this time. Many utter their first words at this time. They are definitely mobile no matter what way they choose to get around. And often some babies who used to be fine going to just about anybody start wanting only Mommy or Daddy because now the baby is aware of differences in personality (or at least that’s the way it appeared to me when I saw it). Or sometimes the baby wants help taking on the world. “I’ll engage the world, but with your help, Mommy.”

I’ve only written what I have based on my experience and opinion. But I suppose I don’t like being told how I should parent. I don’t like someone assuming I’m clueless and need to be informed that my child wasn’t really ready to be born, so that’s why she’s crying. Everyone has individual beliefs on child development and parenting. And these are some of mine.


  1. Well written. I know I would get tired of hearing that too. I don't think that phrase was around when you were born. If it was, I was unaware of it. I know I was afraid to give Megan her first bath. I don't know how Megan felt about it. Maybe new moms and new babies have similar fears.

  2. Thank you! I only started hearing about it shortly before G. Lee was born. I'm not sure who the first person was to come out with it, but I remember thinking that the explantation didn't sit well with me then. And it has taken me 4 years to wrap my mind around it and put to words an explantation that works better for me.