Navigating the Fourth Trimester as a Dad
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.
What is the fourth trimester?
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.”
Get ready for a wild ride of emotions
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.
It can be really tough (and gross) sometimes
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.
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…