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The Fourth Trimester – Why Your Baby Wants to Be Held

The chances are that if you’re a new parent you’ll have uttered one or more of the following phrases: “my baby will only sleep on me!”; “my baby hates their cot!”; “my baby will never be put down!”. If this sounds familiar, read on to discover the science behind the ‘fourth trimester’ as explained by Daisy teacher Meg Hill.

The ‘good baby’ myth

The phrases above are often uttered as part of an existential crisis and accompanied by the idea that you don’t know what you’re doing, you can’t do this and that you’re a rubbish parent. You ask and search around for help and the nagging doubts you have of yourself – that you’re not parenting in the right way – are cemented because so frequently these questions are packaged as a problem to be overcome. A problem to be worked on, to fit in to the “good baby” narrative that is so frequently forced on new parents. (Sadly, from which many so-called ‘experts’ exploit new parents into shelling out many, many pounds).

Baby’s experiences in the womb

Yet picture, if you will, the life your baby has had while growing inside the womb. Dark within the confines of your uterus, warm and protected by your body. Comfortably hammocked, rocked by your movements, the swoosh of amniotic fluid in their ears. Their every primal need met instantly by your body that they’re connected to. Then they are born. The world is a vastly different place to everything they have known to this point. Temperature changes, the feel of nappies and clothes on their skin, sights, smells, feelings of hunger and thirst. All these wonderful things we take for granted in this world are brand new sensations for babies. When you appreciate this, you suddenly take in the enormity of life as a newborn and understand why babies cry to be held close by you. Why they yearn to be nestled in your warm embrace, able to smell you and hear your familiar heartbeat. Wanting to be with you is not a problem to be fixed: what baby is biologically designed to need is often not what our environment and culture encourages.

The fourth trimester

If we look at and treat the first three months of a baby’s life as a transition period, the so-called fourth trimester of pregnancy, a lot of the heartache and pressure we place upon ourselves as parents can be reduced. We need to understand antenatally that when baby appears we must treat them as though they’re still in utero. If we do this, that terrific pressure of wondering why our baby won’t be put down, why won’t he sleep in his cot, what am I doing wrong will disappear. You are not doing anything wrong. Your baby is behaving exactly as he/she should. You’re doing a great job! Let’s repeat that, because it’s so very important. You are doing a great job by tending to your baby’s needs.

There are some great ways of replicating that womb-like environment for a baby, many of which help to soothe them, reducing crying, and reducing the effect of their crying on you. Because let’s not forget how important you are in this picture. A phrase which is uttered almost as often as “my baby won’t be put down” is “a happy baby is a happy mom”. It’s certainly true that if a baby is crying your own stress levels will rise, making it more difficult to understand and react to what your baby is trying to communicate with you. But remember, none of these are guaranteed to work all the time for all babies because every baby is different and will react in different ways at different times.

Movement: Your baby is used to moving when you move. Which is why so many will be soothed to sleep by the gentle rocking motion of a car or pram. This is also why so many parents have developed their own baby-sway which is often so well-used that you can see it in practice when baby isn’t even with them!

Noise: Forget the lullabies and soft music: anything that mimics the swoosh of amniotic fluid will help soothe your baby best. So some serious SHHHHHHing, the hoover, Ewan the Dream Sheep or one of the multitude of YouTube videos.

Water: A nice deep bath mimics the feeling of the amniotic fluid around your baby while they were inside you, and can soothe (or at least distract!) from a troubled soul. Even better if you or dad can get in the bath with them as the skin-to-skin contact will do wonders for both of you.

Sucking: Sometimes a baby is cross because they’re hungry, so it's important to be led by their cues rather than a schedule, whichever way you choose to feed them. However, sometimes babies crave non-nutritive sucking, similar to when they suck on their own fingers in utero. If you’re breastfeeding offer the breast even if you don’t think baby is hungry, and if you’re bottle feeding try a dummy or a clean finger.

Babywearing: Slings and carriers aren’t just a good way of not getting the pram muddy when you go for a walk! They’re a really useful tool to enable you to keep your baby close-by while you go about your day. Research has shown that babies who are carried in slings cry less than their non-slinged counterparts, not just while they’re being carried but throughout the day. That’s a pretty compelling reason to babywear, right?

Skin-to-skin: Not just for the golden hour after birth, but helpful at any age. Skin-to-skin contact can help regulate your baby’s temperature, regulate their breathing and heart rate, reduce stress hormones (in both of you!), and can boost oxytocin (the love hormone) production in you both.

Co-sleep: 50% of babies in the UK bed-share at some point before they are 3 months old. Many because their parents recognise that they will both get better sleep when they’re close to each other. Make sure that this is planned, and safe. More information can be found here

Many of these methods of recreating the womb-like environment for baby can be used in conjunction with another. Sometimes one will work where it didn’t yesterday. Dad may find one works best for him while you find another works best for you. All of this is ok. These are tools to add to your growing parenting toolkit and nothing will unilaterally work for all babies and all parents in all situations. And that’s ok. Enjoy your fourth trimester <3

The Daisy Foundation 2023

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