Ever wish you had a way of helping women know they're normal and good enough?
The fourth trimester theory can help with that.
I have a really good friend. We’ll call her Pippa.
I was thrilled to go and help Pippa when she’d just had her baby. You know the kind of thing. Keep the fridge stocked, keep bringing her water for breastfeeding support because it drains you dry. Hold the baby when she asked. Empty the bins. Tell her she was the best mother on the planet.
I loved every second of it, when you have a midwifery background and you just get to do nice things for someone you love, it’s the best.
When I left it was November and Pippa’s baby was ten days old. She said cheerily ‘Come back at Christmas!’ (we tend to meet up at Christmas) ‘He’ll be sleeping through by then.’
Aw, it’s hard not to laugh but it’s not fair. No-one tells you how long they’re going to be like that for.
Cut to Christmas and Pippa’s kid was going through one of those proper screaming-for-no-reason phases. It was great to be there and take some of the pressure off. Early postnatal breastfeeding can be so demanding. My heart broke for her because she really expected it to be all okay by then. There was a lot of crying on her part too.
I’ve heard of the fourth trimester theory and I really like it.
The idea is that human babies are born 'altricialy' (good word!) meaning they can’t move around on their own yet and they’re dependant on the people around them.
This is supposed to be because human brains are much bigger than in other primates and so babies are born earlier than they ‘should be’. We only have pelvises that can birth babies with a certain sized head.
Babies therefore act like they’re still in utero, needing contact, warmth, food and love on tap.
Well it does sound like the first three months+, doesn’t it!
I think the benefit of this theory is it’s just excellent shorthand for explaining parenthood overwhlem. It’s a concept that sticks in your brain, useful as it's hard to explain newborn parenting unless you’ve done it or been there with someone.
And it helps to address the ‘WHHYY are you still crying?!?!’ , always useful.
The theory is interesting but I’m not sure it’s true to say we’re born too early. Evolution doesn’t work like that, we’re all just copies of organisms which have gone before us with changes, there's no gold standard newborn animal to compare with.
But I think if this theory was talked about a bit more, maybe we’d have less stressed out women who think there’s something wrong? I’m a fan of anything where we take pressure off Mums.
I think I get it more because I’m not a baby person. I’m loving my nephew right now, he’s 20 months and the beginning to talk thing makes me want to die.
But I got into midwifery because I was fascinated by women’s stories. The tiny little alien like creatures can be cute but it's more the tenacity of parents that I'm fascinated by.
As for evolutionary theory, you have to be careful not to overstate things because we don’t have evidence. I don't want to suggested we're maladapted in any way.
Just like with all evidence in midwifery, nothing’s set in stone.
Anyway, Pippa now has a healthy, happy one and a half year old and is planning her next baby. She knows what it’ll be like and she’s still heading back for more.
As Hollie McNish once wrote, I feel like I’ve joined ‘a secret society’, where you get to understand parenthood.
As a midwife with no kids yet I know I don’t ‘get it’.
But it’s a great privilege to be an honorary member of this society and though I don’t expect the screaming or lack of sleep to be any easier when if/when I have my own, and I’ll freak out just like everyone else, at least I’ll know it’s normal.
I'd love to hear from you.
1. Have you used this theory with clients? Did it help?
2. Would it have helped you?
All my best xx