The fourth trimester (0-3 months)
Birth is an incredible thing. So many ‘firsts’. Little baby goes from being inside her mother, to breathing air for the first time, seeing light for the first time and being able to grip onto her mother and father. Mom and dad get to hold her for the first time, seeing her. Very quickly everything changes. Nine months of waiting, with a mixture of excitement and fear, is over. The Author of Life has woven together this child in her mother’s womb and she is finally ‘here’.
One of the powerful things about Jesus is that he shows us what God is like. If we want to know what God sees when he beholds an infant, we simply look at the life of Jesus. Luke 18 captures an interaction Jesus has with infants:
Now they were bringing even infants to him that he might touch them. And when the disciples saw it, they rebuked them. But Jesus called them to him, saying, “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.”
This is a beautiful account of how Jesus brought children into his midst. He demonstrated that ‘even infants’ are precious to him and worthy of his attention, affection and care. This frustrated the disciples. They prioritized adults over children, believing that the children were not yet worthy of the Lord’s time. Jesus breaks down this paradigm and reveals the Father’s heart towards all little ones. Jesus has his arms wide open, ready to embrace them and bless them. Part of the beauty of being a faith community is helping parents take their children to Jesus, that he might touch them.
As usual, Jesus drives home a deeper truth about life and faith through our everyday lives. We are to learn from children. Receiving the kingdom of God like a child is not a natural thing. It is something to be caught. An infant shows true dependence, trust and love for her mother. This is a sample of how we are to trust our heavenly Father.
The “fourth trimester”
It is encouraging to read of how God sees this season of baby’s life. The reality is, however, that the first few months of a child’s life take mom and dad through many changes. Parents of newborns require around-the-clock care and it can be a shock to the system figuring out what looking after a new baby really entails. It is an intense time of rapid change and growth and learning for both baby and the parents. An important framework to understand the intensity of this stage is see it as an additional trimester – the “fourth trimester”. Dr Harvey Karp explains in this video that compared with other mammals, human babies are actually born several months ‘too early’. Newborn animals can quickly stand and run, but a human baby, by comparison, can’t even lift his head for four weeks or so.
This helps us see and understand the extra load that parents bear in this season is often greater than expected and can lead to them feeling isolated or overwhelmed.
Engaging mom and dad in this season
In this season of life, many people want to ‘meet baby’, and too easily overlook mom and dad. It is important that mom and dad flourish in this season. As primary caregivers, they will be the ones who provide the nurturing responsive care to baby to ensure he/she flourishes. Have a look at our post entitled, Parents First, to discover more on this. In many ways, there is little you, as a supportive carer, can do for baby at this time. But there is much that you can do for mom and dad’s flourishing.
As an overall theme, journeying with families in this stage is to help them feel that they are supported and not alone. They are doing the most important thing they can for baby. Just because it is the right thing to be doing, doesn’t make it easy or simple. This season requires much encouragement. Affirm mom and dad that they are enough, that they can ask for help, that it is hard. Be their biggest fans.
A brief note on dads: encourage dad to be involved in this stage. Holding baby, ‘burping’ baby, dressing and putting baby to sleep are all ways that dad can be involved. Whilst taking care of mom and other practical needs are also on dad’s shoulders, encourage him to be actively involved in caring for and loving baby. This fosters bonding and yields many positive benefits into the future. When dad is caring for baby, it is not ‘babysitting’, it is parenting. He is not ‘helping out’, he is raising a child. Take care that dad is involved and dialled in. In a society where dad is often absent, we want to create a culture where dads are welcomed in and have a role to play in parenting. For more on dads, have a look at our post, ‘Dads don’t babysit‘.
Your heart and posture
Oftentimes, this stage of birth and the first two months is when people step in to practically supporting and engaging with parents. Before we get to the practical actions, let’s first look at the posture, or heart attitude before stepping in.
This stage is often overwhelming for parents and they perhaps don’t know what kind of, and how much, support they need. And with every family situation being different, there needs to be some discernment before actively stepping in. Read this article aimed at new parents to give you some insights into some of the internal grapplings that mom and dad have in this new time.
Check your heart: You may be eager to step in to help, meet baby and encourage parents. Be sure that you are offering a visit and help for their good, not for you to feel like you are doing something.
Remember, mom and dad are in charge. If they don’t want a visit right now, don’t be pushy. Look to find a time that suits them, which could be after relatives have left, after mom feels stronger etc. This is for their good, not yours. Galatians 5:13 reminds us to serve one another in love. Sometimes the most loving thing you can do is give some space.
Mom and dad might not be ready to share that they are not coping, so don’t pry. Build a bridge of trust so that they can share vulnerably when they are ready to.
Visiting in this season is not about being with them all the time, but rather creating a supportive environment and relationship so that they feel they can ask for help when needed.
Check your tone: When asking questions and listening to the stories, be sure your tone is supportive and encouraging. It is easy to sound judgmental or critical of what happened on birth day, the name, and the type of care mom and dad are providing. This could lead to shame and disconnection.
Your tone should be that of celebrating mom and dad and reassuring them in this season. You do not need to ‘correct every mistake’ you see them making. No parent is perfect.
Check your words: Ensure the phrases you are using when visiting are supportive and encouraging. This may take some practice. Here are some supportive phrases to affirm mom and dad. Based on your culture and relationship with mom and dad, sprinkle these phrases into your conversations:
- “You are doing a great job.”
- “All your kids need is for you to love them.”
- “You are doing better than you think you are.”
- “It’s okay if you feel like you’re losing it sometimes.”
- “No one is as perfect as they seem on social media”
- “Do you need a break?”
- “It’s okay if you don’t love every moment.”
- “You are not alone”
- “Trust your instincts”
- “You are the exact parent your child needs.”
What you can be doing practically
- Visit family while they are still in hospital
- Visit especially 2-3 weeks after birth – when the ‘babymoon’ period is waning and dad or other caregivers might be back at work
- When visiting – ask after mom first, not baby. Help mom know and experience that you ‘see’ her and that her identity and relationship with you is intact. In other words, she is not only the mother of this new child, but also friend, sister, cousin etc.
- If mom is breastfeeding, celebrate it! If she is struggling with it, encourage her to get support and seek help. Have a look at this resource for more information.
- Check in with dad. Ensure that he is supported, too. He is experiencing many changes in this season and may be feeling overwhelmed.
- Pray with mom and dad. Pray for peace, for physical recovery, for baby’s growth and health. Share with the parents that you are praying and what Bible verses you are praying through for them.
- Offer to babysit older siblings, or pick them up from school etc
- Offer to step in and do simple housework (wash dishes, quick tidy up) – families might not feel ok with this kind of help – so check first
- Based on mom’s physical recovery, may need help with ‘out of house’ activities – a lift to the clinic or doctor, emergency purchase of something from the shops (nappies run out!) This might not be needed, but the big idea is to help mom and dad feel supported
- Offer to take a meal around at least once a week. This is more than simple nutrition, it is physically demonstrating care and your presence opens the door for more conversations and support.
- For grandparents, aunts and uncles, you have a special place in helping older siblings feel rooted, safe and special in this time when attention has shifted off them
- Bring good gifts. Have a look at Mother.ly’s 7 perfect gifts for new parents. Look at these through the lenses of your culture and adjust for your context.
Caring for family with others
As part of a Christian faith community, here are some ways that you can create the loving and supportive family around these new families:
- Organise a ‘take them a meal’ roster. Sometimes families don’t want to ask others to provide meals. So offer to do it for them. Have a look at takethemameal.com to set it up. Check dietary preferences in advance.
- You could rally others to do some of what is suggested above
- Organize for some older men to connect with dad. Intergenerational wisdom is valuable.
- With permission, announce the birth to the church family.
- When family returns to a Sunday gathering for the first time after birth, affirm them and publicly pray for them. Ensure they feel recognized, seen and supported that they are in a new space or season of life.
New for everyone
Remember that everyone is experiencing something new in this season. Some changes are expected, whilst others are surprises. Every birth is different. Everything might have gone according to plan, it might be better than expected or the hardest season mom and dad have experienced. The big goal of journeying with mom, dad and baby is to be their encouragers, their supporters and a loving, embracing community around them. Lean in and help them to be flourishing in this stage. Help mom and dad take baby to Jesus, that he may touch and embrace them.