Walk into any bookstore and head over to the pregnancy section — the sheer number of books, tips, and baby info is overwhelming. But if you’re like me, it can also be a little comforting: When I’m unsure or anxious about something, I feel better surrounding myself with information.
But here’s the thing: While I read everything I could about the first, second, and third trimester so I could support my wife and learn about my son’s growth, I forgot to read up about what would happen after he was born.
In other words, I was completely unprepared for the fourth trimester. And with a tiny newborn that needed to be fed every 2 to 3 hours, I didn’t exactly have time to go to my favorite bookstore.
I was completely unprepared for the emotions I’d feel, the struggles I’d have figuring out what was up with my baby, or the changes my relationship with my wife would go through. And while I knew sleepless nights were part of the deal, I had no clue what sleep deprivation actually does to you.
So here’s everything I wish I’d known before baby got here — hopefully, it will help you, too.
Definitions first: If we’re being technical, the fourth trimester is the baby’s first 3 months of life, as the word “trimester” implies.
But it’s not just a period of time where your baby adjusts to life outside the womb and starts hitting milestones (like learning to smile!). It’s also a period where you, your partner, and your family in general go through some pretty big adjustments.
It’s also, explains Leslie Owens, a registered nurse and international board certified lactation consultant in the Atlanta area, “an important time for maternal healing, mother and infant bonding, as well as bonding as a family,”
So, she adds, “It’s important for dads to be especially sensitive and nurturing to their partner during this time and to let her know that she’s not alone.”
One of the biggest surprises for me was how I reacted at the moment my son was born. My wife’s water broke early — we were only in week 36 — and he arrived via cesarean delivery, commonly referred to as a C-section, while I sat by my wife’s head.
Because of a big blue dividing sheet, I didn’t see him right away: I just heard him as he let out a big, loud, hard cry. Then the doctor said, “Happy Birthday!” and lifted him up so I could see him over the screen. His hair was dark, almost black, and it was so thick and full — and he was so much bigger than I thought he’d be — and suddenly, I just broke down in a big, ugly cry.
It caught me totally by surprise. I knew I’d be happy when I saw him. I figured I’d be grinning or something, but nope — there I was, crying. Maybe it had to do with how quickly things happened. Maybe it was just the realization that he was real and more importantly, healthy. We’d been so worried this whole time. Or maybe it was just my reaction to being a dad.
But turns out: It’s totally typical.
“New dads experience many of the same emotions a new mom experiences,” explains Owens. “Everything from shock, to pure love, to bewilderment, to exhaustion from sleep deprivation, to sometimes even depression — it’s complicated and it’s messy sometimes.”
My emotions would swing, too. I’d shift from being upset and irritated by a late-night crying session to melting into a puddle when he’d settle against my chest as I rocked him. For a lot of new dads, changing emotions are common, and some dads can even have a form of postpartum depression during the fourth trimester.
There’s no way to predict how your emotions will change or if you’ll experience postpartum depression, but being honest about how you’re feeling and talking with a mental health professional if it starts to feel too overwhelming is an important way to keep yourself in check.
Kind of like your emotions, the fourth trimester is a rollercoaster. And you get used to sleep deprivation, baby vomit, and so much poop really fast. And rarely does anything go as planned.
For example: The nurse at the hospital had warned both my wife and me that baby’s first poops would be a black color because they’re mostly meconium. The poop is dark because it’s made up of all sorts of intestinal secretions. She’d also warned up to change diapers quickly to avoid accidents.
I just didn’t realize both those things could combine in a perfect storm while I tried to change his diaper by myself.
But there I was, changing him, when I heard a baby fart followed by — yep, you guessed it — black poop. And it was a lot. (Seriously. Think geysers of black crude oil level.) And it got everywhere: all over the bassinet in the room, his onesie, and the towel he was on.
I didn’t even know what to do — or how to clean it up. Thankfully, the nurses were there to help that time.
At home, though, I had to figure it out on my own, and let’s just say coffee tables aren’t great changing tables. Lesson learned.
It’s not just the messes that make this fourth trimester tough. I didn’t know how to help my wife through her recovery. I didn’t know what she needed and because I was uncomfortable, I tried to make her laugh a lot — which only made her surgery stitches hurt.
It was tough watching her in pain and I felt powerless to help, which only made me anxious and more uncomfortable. It was a vicious cycle.
I had always thought that breastfeeding was a thing that mom and baby just figured out naturally. Well, I learned pretty quickly that’s not always the case.
My son struggled to latch — and when he did, he tended to hurt my wife. This stressed her out, it stressed me out, and it made our newborn cry and cry. And I worried constantly.
One night in the hospital, I woke up to my wife sobbing and holding our hungry, crying newborn. It scared me.
But here’s the thing: Even if I couldn’t help them figure this whole breastfeeding thing out, I could help them find help from someone who knew more about this. So, I marched down the hall, found a nurse, and before long, she put us in touch with a lactation consultant.
I love my son more than anything, but in those initial days, I didn’t bond with him in the way I expected. He was cute and all, but he also didn’t smile, he didn’t really cuddle, and, well, he didn’t do much of anything except eat, sleep, and poop.
Turns out, this is typical, too — so don’t beat yourself up if you feel a little detached at first.
But one thing that helps both you and your newborn: skin-to-skin contact. When I took my shirt off and laid him on me, he’d snuggle into my chest — I think it made him feel safe — and it made me feel connected to him.
There’s a selfie that I took of me, my wife, and my son about a week after he was born. I still don’t recognize the people in the photo.
My wife looks exhausted, and her expression shows that she’s thinking about everything else besides this photo. I look pale, a little puffy, and like smiling was taking all of my energy. Those two people are zombies.
But I also know why we were zombies. We were both so terrified, that first week, that we took turns watching him sleep — which meant that at best, we slept in 2 to 3 hour increments every 4 to 6 hours.
Spoiler alert: This wasn’t sustainable.
We ultimately needed to figure out a way for all three of us to sleep which meant, as the old cliche goes, “to sleep when the baby sleeps.” In other words, we needed to trust that we had created a safe space for him to sleep so that we could also get some sleep, too.
During the fourth trimester, I remember telling my wife that I felt like we were two day care workers, raising someone else’s kid.
In other words, we felt like friends working at a job, not romantic partners. We had shifted our focus solely to our son. The romance, intimacy, and closeness that had defined our marriage was gone in those early months.
The truth is, both of us were more or less OK with this change, too. Or maybe we were too tired to want anything else. But I think it would have been nice to know that things could change this much.
Turns out, this kind of change is also to be expected. Some couples squabble or bicker more, too, while others might find themselves missing their old, pre-kid lives.
“The relationship often faces challenges adjusting from being a couple with few responsibilities to a family with a baby to care for 24/7,” explains Owens. “The best way to deal with the stress is to take a ‘teamwork makes the dream work’ approach. Step in and help, take turns getting up with the baby. Also, have regular mental health check-ins with each other, and try to find even a few moments to connect each day.”
If I’m being honest, we haven’t quite gotten back to the old us just yet (and my son is 2 now!) but I think that’s partly the pandemic’s fault too. We haven’t had a real “date night” in almost 2 years (our families don’t live nearby and we don’t have a babysitter we trust), but we try to make time for each other — like watching our favorite TV shows during nap time or after he goes to bed — and that helps a lot.
Parenting is one of the most rewarding — and challenging — things I’ve ever done. But the fourth trimester is one of the toughest times, so the biggest thing to know going into it is: It does get better.
You’re going to figure out the whole diapering, feeding, and sleeping thing. (And yes, you will get a full night of sleep again.) You’re also going to bond with your baby more and more each day as they get older. And before you know it, the gross stuff won’t bother you as much.
And in the meantime: Try to stay flexible and eager to learn and adapt as you settle into your new role as dad. Before long, you’re probably going to love your new, slightly messier life — I know I wouldn’t trade mine for anything.