Serena Williams believes more new mums should talk about the struggles of the fourth trimester after they give birth. The 36-year-old, whose daughter Olympia was born in September 2017, has previously spoken about her traumatic birth and has now revealed she suffered from postnatal depression.
“Honestly, sometimes I think I still have to deal with it,” she told Harper’s Bazaar. “I think people have to talk about it more because it’s almost like the fourth trimester, it’s part of the pregnancy. I remember one day, I couldn’t find Olympia’s bottle and I got so upset I started crying because I wanted to be perfect for her.”
So what is the fourth trimester?
A full pregnancy is divided into three trimesters, which each lasts between 12-14 weeks. The term “fourth trimester” is a phrase sometimes used to describe the first six to eight weeks after a baby has been born; a period when women are adjusting to motherhood, dealing with the aftermath of birth and the reality of having a newborn baby.
Elizabeth Duff, senior policy advisor at the National Childbirth Trust (NCT), tells HuffPost UK: “It often takes new mums a while to recover from the physical and emotional demands of pregnancy and childbirth, while at the same time caring for a baby. This period is sometimes referred to as the ‘fourth trimester’.
“[This] can leave mothers feeling emotional, irritable and depressed and there can then be a ‘roller-coaster’ of ups and downs as the enjoyment of parenthood on some days contrasts with anxiety, fatigue and frustration on others.”
Kate Pinney, a Tommy’s midwife, says the fourth trimester can sometimes go on for longer than eight weeks and can vary between women: “Each experience is different and can be heavily influenced by many factors such as how you felt during your pregnancy, your labour and birth experience, but also what support networks you have around you.”
How may new mums feel during the fourth trimester?
Pinney says Serena’s comments about “wanting to be perfect” for her baby are not uncommon as parents often speak about feeling guilty for a variety of reasons, such as not feeling like they are able to settle their baby, having struggles feeding, or not taking their baby to the latest group or activity.
“Early parenthood can also be a lonely place, and for many speaking out about the difficulties of this time is still a taboo,” says Pinney. “Saying that it is tough, is no reflection on how much you love or care for your baby, it is just reality.”
For some, bonding with their baby does not always come straight away and that can come as a shock, explains Pinney. If a mother doesn’t experience the rush of love shortly after she gives birth, she may find the next few weeks challenging.
Pinney says many new mums experience episodes of low mood and changing emotions during this period, often due to a lack of sleep and altering hormones.
Is this linked to postnatal depression?
Duff says if low mood and psychological symptoms worsen, it can be due to something more serious such as postnatal depression (PND) or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). “Recent research by NCT found that half (50%) of mothers experienced emotional problems at some time during pregnancy or within the first year of their child’s birth,” she says.
What can mums do to make the fourth trimester easier?
- Remember, it doesn’t just affect mums.
Parenting author, Sarah Ockwell-Smith, has previously discussed how the fourth trimester can be exhausting because newborns hate being put down in this period of their life. “Understanding this and treating newborns as if they were still ‘in utero’ for their first three months of life can make life much easier for new families,” she wrote.
She explains how when a mother is pregnant, the baby is in constant physical contact with her. After the birth, the baby has to get used to lots of different sounds, spend time flat on their back rather than tightly curled and start to experience sensations of hunger and thirst. She argues, therefore, that women should replicate the baby’s “womb world” post birth, which can help reduce the amount of time they spend crying and increase how long they spend asleep, giving parents more time. Find out how here.
- Don’t suffer alone.
To combat loneliness, new mums are encouraged to join expectant and new mum groups, which are run through the National Childbirth Trust (NCT). Branches across the UK organise relaxing and informal get-togethers for new parents. Many of the groups are free, while others charge only a nominal fee to cover costs. Depending on the local branch there are separate groups for parents with newborns and groups for toddlers. Find out more here.
Mums should also speak to their health visitor after giving birth about how they are feeling. Duff says the NCT are campaigning for improvements to the six-week postnatal check-up to reduce the number of mothers who don’t get diagnosed and treated properly if they experience PND during the fourth trimester. Find out more here.
For information and support:
Mind: A mental health charity there to make sure no one has to face a mental health problem alone. Call: 0300 123 3393.
Pandas Foundation: Charity to support and advise any parent who is experiencing a perinatal mental illness. Call: 0843 28 98 401.
Mothers for Mothers: A postnatal depression support group with information and peer advice. Call: 0117 975 6006.
PNI: A website run by women who have suffered from postnatal illnesses to share personal experiences and offer support.
Serena Williams is a member of a board of advisers to Oath, HuffPost’s parent company.