Those first three months are a rollercoaster.
Over the last few months, we’ve delved into some of the lesser spoken-about aspects of pregnancy and childbirth. In the third instalment of our series, we’re exploring the fourth trimester, AKA the first three months post-birth. For the last time, a disclaimer: we’re not trying to scare anyone, just educate. Let’s dive in!
You’ve just given birth to a whole new person! Your body is in recovery! You’re figuring out all that goes with being a parent! You’ll probably be up all night feeding! Please, please take care of yourself. It almost feels redundant to say this, but we all know that women can be pretty bad at putting themselves first.
In the first few weeks, try to hand off as many responsibilities as possible – you’re not to be cooking, cleaning, out grocery shopping, or doing the washing, if you can help it at all. Rest in bed, sleep when the baby sleeps, and don’t feel like you have to entertain visitors. It’s nice to see people, of course, but when you have to nap, you have to nap. Most of your energy has to go into caring for the baby during this time.
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Today The Duke and Duchess of Sussex are delighted to share their first public moment as a family. They are so incredibly grateful for the warm wishes and support they’ve received from everyone around the world, since welcoming their son two days ago. Photo cred: Chris Allerton ©️SussexRoyal
Apparently this still isn’t common knowledge (just look in the comments under any photo of Meghan Markle post-birth – or maybe don’t, they’re a hellscape), but when you give birth, your bump doesn’t just pop like a balloon. Your uterus has to slowly shrink back to its original size, and unfortunately, that doesn’t feel too good.
You can expect to endure cramps kind of like contractions, which are the sensation of your uterus contracting. Unfortunately, these ‘afterpains’ are thought to get worse with each pregnancy, which is extremely rude of our bodies. The contractions subside after about a week, but it takes from six to eight weeks for your uterus to return to its post-pregnancy state. So again, go easy on yourself.
You’d think, since breastfeeding is ‘natural’ and all, that both you and the baby would just innately know what to do. Again, that’s kind of a myth. There is a lot of ground to cover with breastfeeding (and a lot of opinions) but we’ll go through some of the basic facts.
For the first few days after your baby’s birth, you’ll produce a ‘pre-milk’ called colostrum, which is packed full of nutrients essential for a newborn. After three or four days, your regular breast milk will come in, and your baby will be feeding every one to three hours day and night. It is a full time job, folks.
How do you know that your baby is hungry? Well, they’ll flutter their eyes, move their hands to their mouths, and root around trying to get to your breast, with crying being one of the last things they’ll do to let you know they want to eat. As for how you know they’re latched on properly to your nipple and feeding well – you’ll see and hear them swallowing, and may notice their ears twitching (meaning they’re enjoying their meal, extremely cute).
Although sore and tender nipples are pretty normal during the first few days, pain during breastfeeding is a sign that your baby isn’t positioned well or having trouble latching on. The afterpains we mentioned earlier are actually a hint that things are going right, as those contractions are triggered by oxytocin, the hormone released during breastfeeding.
There is help available if you feel like you’re just not getting it, from lactation consultants to breastfeeding support groups and public health nurses. Breastfeeding is not always the Zen motherhood experience it’s often depicted as, and if it’s not working for you, that does not mean you are failing. It’s different for every mother, and all that matters is finding the best approach for both you and your baby, whatever that may be.
“I still have visions of myself wheeling my trolley around the postnatal ward, looking in at my most precious baby girl, tears of joy and sadness streaming down my face,” recalls Dr Malie Coyne, Clinical Psychologist and lecturer at NUIG. “What was wrong with me? Why couldn’t I hold it together? The most amazing thing had just happened to me, and I just felt so overwhelmed, not in control of my emotions, and petrified of the massive responsibility.”
What Dr Coyne is describing is the emotional rollercoaster that can coincide with the big drop in hormone levels three to four days after giving birth, known as the ‘baby blues’. It’s completely normal, but many women told STELLAR that they were completely blindsided by these feelings, confused as to why they felt joyous one minute, and devastated the next.
“The ‘baby blues’ are perfectly normal, but many new mothers may not be aware to expect these feelings, which can make them feel isolated and as if something is wrong with them,” explains Dr Coyne. “There is this expectation that having a baby is all roses, when in fact it is one of the most difficult transitions a person will ever make in their lives.”
These feelings might peak around three days to a week post-birth, and usually reduce by the end of the second week. “If we spoke about the ‘baby blues’ a bit more, then I think new mothers would more readily share their feelings,” says Dr Coyne. “Having a good support system is absolutely crucial to a mother for her emotional wellbeing, and to nurture her ability to bond well with her new baby.”
“In the beginning, postnatal depression can look like the ‘baby blues’, because they share symptoms, including mood swings, sadness, insomnia, and irritability,” warns Dr Coyne. “However, symptoms of PND are more severe, and can really interfere with your ability to function and care for your baby.”
These symptoms can include a low mood for two weeks or more, a loss of interest in yourself and your baby, withdrawing from family and friends, and recurrent thoughts of self-harm
or suicide. Postnatal depression affects about one in ten mothers – it’s important that new mams and their loved ones are able to recognise the symptoms so that they can access help early.
Anxiety is a natural response to the stressors of new parenthood, but debilitating anxiety that doesn’t subside within a few weeks may be an indicator of something more serious. Signs of postnatal anxiety disorders include loss of appetite, difficulty sleeping, muscle tension (like teeth grinding, neck and shoulder pain, or muscle twitching), and trouble concentrating.
“Sometimes a mother may experience both postnatal anxiety and depression at the same time, which can really impact their emotional wellbeing and the relationship with their baby,” says Dr Coyne. Suffering from either of these conditions is nothing to feel ashamed of. It can happen to anyone, it’s not your fault, and it doesn’t mean that you’re a bad mother, or that you don’t love your baby.
However, you can choose to get treatment, and your GP or midwife will help you decide what kind of help you need. “The bonding process is one of the most important task of infancy, hence it makes sense that your baby ‘needs you to look after you’,” says Dr Coyne. “It’s important to remember that all a baby needs is a ‘good enough’ parent, and not a perfect one.”