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Birth plans have become standard pregnancy to-do list items, but they’re not the only plans you should be making. Looking beyond birth and having a plan in place to navigate the often-overlooked fourth trimester—the three months after your baby is born and your first three months as a mother—is just as, if not more, important than putting together a birth plan, experts say.
Why? As a new mother, everything is new, explains Birdie Gunyon Meyer, RN, MA, PMH-C, certification director for Postpartum Support International.
You have a new baby. You have a new routine. You have a new sleep schedule. You have a new set of responsibilities. And, simply put, that can be overwhelming.
Fortunately, there are ways to effectively prepare for postpartum and navigate the hurdles of new motherhood.
Here, the essential components of a postpartum plan, according to Gunyon Meyer:
Most new moms know that with a new baby comes sleep deprivation, but it’s hard to truly wrap your head around what two- or three-hour stretches (or less) of sleep feel like on repeat—especially when you’re also managing the new job of being a mother (which is a 24/7 gig).
That’s why experts like Gunyon Meyer teach new moms to plan their postpartum sleep support while they’re pregnant. For some, that might mean leaning on a mother, mother-in-law, or another family member to help with middle-of-the-night feedings. For others, it might mean splitting the night with a partner. If you feel comfortable inviting someone into your home, a night nurse can also be a wise investment.
However you set this up, making sure you have the added supports in place so that you can get the rest and recovery you need is a key aspect of a healthy fourth trimester.
Asking for help isn’t always easy, but remember: When people offer to help, they usually really do want to help—and it’s okay (read: it’s often necessary!) to accept it. It’s just important to be specific in outlining your needs. Struggle with asking for help or not quite sure what you really need? Gunyon Meyer suggests keeping a running list of to-do tasks on the fridge (or make a new one every day or every few days). When people ask how they can help, direct them toward the list. It might include things like folding the laundry, buying specific grocery items, taking out the trash, scheduling a doctor’s appointment for an older baby, or allowing you a chance to take a nap. The more specific you are with the list, the more likely you are to get the help you need.
When you have a baby, you may find yourself with an influx of food deliveries from friends and family (an often-welcome gift as you’ll likely have little time or energy for cooking). The problem? Even warming something up in the oven can seem tedious when you’re sleep-deprived with a newborn.
That’s why Gunyon Meyer suggests doing some pre-baby grocery shopping (or having someone do this for you!) to ensure you have easy, go-to snacks—nuts, energy bars, fruit, cheese—on hand once the baby arrives.
Keeping this food out in bowls around the house means you’ll always have something to eat on hand (no warming up necessary!). Don’t forget a full water bottle either—breastfeeding (and motherhood in general) can be exhausting and ultimately dehydrating.
In current times, social drop-ins from family members and friends aren’t as common, but setting boundaries is still important, says Gunyon Meyer. After all, not everyone has the same ideas about what is and is not appropriate in terms of visiting. Setting some ground rules around when you are seeing people and what you’d like people to do before they enter your home (hand sanitizer or a mask, for example) can help keep clear boundaries and help keep uncomfortable scenarios with others at bay. Don’t feel comfortable stating the rules yourself? It’s okay to delegate someone else to do it, suggests Gunyon Meyer.
It’s easy to feel guilty as a new mother—and many moms find the emotion of guilt creep up from time to time. But it’s important to remember that mothering was never something that was supposed to be done by one person and one person only and that you are parenting in unprecedented times. After all, all throughout history, children have been raised by a village of people.
Current times make it harder than ever to find the in-person support you want and need, so it’s even more important to recognize that it’s okay (and normal) to struggle. If you’re feeling guilty and overwhelmed? Think about what forms of support feel safe to you. Would chatting with a postpartum doula virtually help? Could you meet with a lactation consultant in your front yard? Do you really just need a few moments to yourself? Pinpoint a few forms of support that would help and try to put them into action to lessen your load.
About 1 in 5 to 7 new moms will experience a PMAD in pregnancy or new motherhood, whether it’s postpartum depression, anxiety, OCD, or another mood or anxiety disorder. One thing to note: About 80 percent of new moms experience the “baby blues”—weepiness, crying, anxious thoughts, and irritability related to a drastic drop in hormones in the first two weeks after giving birth. But PMADs are different from the baby blues, reminds Gunyon Meyer. If you’re not feeling like yourself (you’re constantly worried, you can’t sleep when the baby sleeps, you’re crying unexpectedly, you have repetitive intrusive thoughts) after two weeks time and your symptoms are getting in the way of your day-to-day, a PMAD could be at play. Fortunately, PMADs are highly treatable with therapy, medication, or a mix of both. You can find a trained mental health professional who specializes in the perinatal period on PSI’s website.