For good reason, the postpartum period is also known as the fourth trimester of pregnancy. And as a doula, I’m here to remind you that it is a period rich in both joy and challenges.
Merriam-Webster defines postpartum as “occurring in or being the period following childbirth,” but it’s much more than that. Many people don’t realize that postpartum is not just a period of time — it’s a state of being.
By painting the full picture of how the body changes during this period, you can better understand how the word “postpartum” can take on many meanings outside of simply birthing a child.
Giving birth and “the baby blues”
In non-pregnant people, the brain handles regulating estrogen and progesterone. Once a person becomes pregnant, the placenta — an entirely new organ grown in the uterus for the purpose of developing a child — takes on this job. It’s truly an amazing feat of the body.
Once the placenta leaves the body during labor, so long as there are no complications, regulation of these hormones is given back to the brain.
As a result of this transition, there is typically a depletion of hormones somewhere around the third day after birth. This is a phenomenon referred to as “the baby blues.”
If this depletion results in a significant drop in estrogen, it can lead to an array of mood disorders, such as anxiety, sadness, and depression. Perinatal mood and anxiety disorders (PMADS) are common for anyone who is pregnant or postpartum, as adjusting to a new family can be intense.
The beginning of the fourth trimester
Postpartum is typically thought of as the twelve-week period immediately after having a baby.
Giving birth is hard work — not only physically, but mentally and emotionally too. Your body will require a significant amount of time to heal and adjust to new parenthood.
During this time, it’s easy to pull focus from yourself and onto tending to this new life. That said, staying in bed for at least two weeks post-birth is highly recommended.
If you had a surgical birth or any complications during birth, your doctor might recommend that you stay in bed even longer.
While many new mothers tend to fluctuate between feeling energized and feeling exhausted, keep in mind that even with bursts of energy, your body needs to rest and heal.
Because of this, you should prepare a postpartum plan that includes meal prepping in advance. You can prepare and freeze meals yourself, or you can work with a doula, so that you can have nourishing food made or delivered.
The postpartum period is all about taking care of yourself so that you can take care of your baby.
How to manage your physical health during the fourth trimester
Self-care during this postpartum period is essential for the short- and long-term health of both you and your baby.
In terms of physical health, the pelvic floor — which works as a “hammock” of muscles that relaxes during pregnancy and is stretched during delivery — and the perineum — the area of soft tissue extending from the back passage to the vulva — will need to rest for several days.
You should sit and stand only when necessary, such as when you use the restroom, when you eat, and when you feed the baby.
In some instances, your medical team may recommend that you wear belly supports to help with the shrinking of the uterus, joint stabilization, and backaches.
Along with hormonal depletion, there will also be significant blood loss during this time. Thus, it is important to nourish yourself with iron-rich, blood-building foods. So, be sure to include warm, filling foods with dark leafy greens in your postpartum plan.
Why you should create a postpartum plan and get help
As mentioned above, this postpartum period will greatly affect your mental and emotional health. It is easy to become overwhelmed with all the new life changes and the responsibility to care for an entirely new person.
Creating a plan beforehand, working with a doula, or delegating tasks to family or friends, can help ease the stress of new parenthood. Build your community prenatally, and assign them tasks to help you during your first few weeks at home.
Remember, it takes a village, and it is normal to need help during this transitional phase of life.