An encouraging and positive read that mixes science with real-life stories. Susan Brink is filling a gap in the literature that new parents discover when they enter the fourth trimester. She writes specifically to help shine a light on what’s going on in little babies for the first months of life.
The first three months of a baby’s life is an outside-the-uterus period of intense development, a biological bridge from foetal life to preparation for the real world. The fourth trimester has more in common with the nine months that came before than with the lifetime that follows.
Susan Brink set out to write a book for anyone who wants to do right by an infant. She has created a practical guide for anyone who feels like a baby is a complete mystery during the first three months of life. A plan of action for those who were told by their paediatricians, parents and friends to hang in there for three months until the demanding and alien infant will become more like the baby they imagined.
In the preface, she explains her inspiration for writing this book. The shock of suddenly being responsible for the life and development of a new, physically helpless human was experienced by both her and her daughters.
On my desk I have photographs that tell the story. The snapshots I took a few days before my daughters became mothers show them proudly posing with their full-term pregnant bodies in profile, their smiles broad and genuine.
Then comes a shot of my daughter Jenny, triumphant with her newborn Max, but her smile has become uncertain. The same uncertainty is written on Rachel’s face in yet another snapshot, her eyes wary and full of doubt, posing with one-day-old Makayla.
As brand new mothers my daughters had had their confidence seriously shaken.
Her goal is to bridge the gap between birth and getting the hang of being a new parent a few months later.
She wants to reassure all new parents that infants are as biologically capable as they are physically helpless and that what they really need to get started in life is consistent loving attention.
During pregnancy, the focus is on the mother and through her the well-being of the baby. We prepare for the arrival of our children by making sure we buy all the things necessary to invite this new life into the home, we take birthing classes and practice techniques to help bring the new life into this world, we read books and receive copious amounts of advice from pretty much everyone.
After the birth is when it gets real. It’s in those quiet moments, once the hustle and bustle has died down, when you’re left alone with your new baby. For me it became real when my daughter slept on my chest with her face nuzzled into the side of my neck, breathing little, quiet haa, haa, haa’s into my ear. That’s when I had this surge go through my body and suddenly it was viscerally real that I was now responsible for the safety and well-being of this little life.
When my mother came to visit us in the hospital she just sat with her granddaughter in her arms looking at her for the longest time. Finally, she looked up and said “This is when it truly becomes real, isn’t it?” and went right back to silently staring at her sleeping granddaughter.
This little creature was a mystery to us. It took a lot of trial and error (and many, many wrong guesses and mistakes) to figure out what she meant when she cried. She had been thrown into a world that was drastically different than the environment she was used to — swaddling (we quickly learned) was one of those things that kept our little one happy.
Her preferred place was in skin-to-skin contact and in physical contact in general. In hindsight, I wish we had packed one of the baby slings that we had bought before the birth in the hospital bag. My husband learned the hard way that an infant prefers being close when he carried his little bundle around on his chest and nestled into his neck for four days straight in the hospital.
She absolutely refused to be put down anywhere except in someone else’s arms. Having had a carry sling handy would have saved him from the aching arms that he had when we got home.
A newborn human is not so much a baby as a final-phase foetus living through a time of transition as he gives up the comforts of the uterus and gradually adjusts to the wonders and challenges of the world. Further, during this period infants and mothers need to stay almost as tightly bound together as biology dictated during the first three trimesters.
Sleep was one of the first things that caused some worry. Not our daughter’s, but my husband’s who was going back to work. As Brink explains it our daughter slept as she was supposed to; “irregularly, sporadically, in long or short episodes, and whenever she wants.”
Since that is how an infant is used to sleeping in utero it’s going to take time to adjust to a new way of sleeping outside the womb. Proximity to a parent or caretaker promotes the release of hormones that help the baby begin to regulate her sleep.
That this irregular (and unpredictable) way of sleeping kept us up at night feeding and rocking her back to sleep — or staying up for company if she wasn’t sleepy — didn’t exactly fit in with an adult schedule. In her book Brink makes the point that infants don’t have sleep problems, adults do. This is because we have expectations of sleep and compare our children to the “good baby” standard of sleeping through the night.
An infant innately knows how much sleep she needs and she will get it as long as no one stands in her way.
It will take months for an infant to settle into a circadian rhythm that resembles anything like the 24-hour clock we grownups bind ourselves to. During those first three months of irregular sleep — which can drive an adult crazy — you really know that you’ve joined the ranks of parenting.
One thing that we discovered quickly was how visceral our baby’s crying was. When, in the beginning, we missed the more subtle cues (mostly for food) she’d raise the alarm to a level that we were sure to hear. My husband felt especially stressed by her wails and was extremely stressed during those first few months.
He was in complete adoration of his little girl but could not comprehend how such a small body could generate a noise that had his stress levels instantly through the roof. When we had tried everything; feeding, changing, burping, rocking, comforting, soothing — and one of those finally was the right answer — my husband had gone from perfectly relaxed to looking like he hadn’t slept in a week.
Babies are supposed to cry. Brink explains that crying is the primary tool that an infant employs to communicate with adults. She goes on to say that by six weeks old an infant has begun mastering her vocal cords and is able to cry at will — and she quickly learns that crying brings the adults running.
From the newborns point of view, there’s a lot to complain about. It’s little wonder that, almost immediately, newborn infants add their own sounds to the mix of worldly noise around them — their cry of life.
Thankfully infants have other ways in which to enchant the people they depend on to survive. Babies of just about any species are irresistible and inspire a desire to see to their every need. The attributes that we see as cute — wide eyes, a round head, round face among others — trigger the reward centres in our brains and elicit a nurturing response motivating us to take action.
The appeal of a vulnerable infant generates a near-universal desire to help. “Can I hold her?” the older brother will ask, stretching his legs out the width of a couch as he tucks himself between pillows and promises to be very careful with her. Her very helplessness contains a survival tool that inspires … a sincere attempt to answer her needs.
An infant begins to initiate and participate in a conversation from birth — as soon as she gets a chance to do so. With moods, signals and rhythms she’s steering adult response and learning new conversational prompts. Through interaction and proximity, she’s learning to distinguish between how different people communicate and respond to her cues.
Her brain is developing at a rapid-fire pace and she’s drinking in all the information she can about her environment and how to interact with it and the people in it.
With her still developing vision she will first learn to recognise the shape of the face before she sees any details. She will at first be able to see contrasts and can be very fascinated by something that creates a clear shape on a light background.
During those short moments when an infant is awake and not in need of anything specific (like food or a new diaper), she’ll love to stare at faces. The faces of the people who love her are her lifeline and she will soon learn to recognise them.
Even before her vision has developed she will begin to copy facial expressions. It isn’t clear how babies as young as a day old know how to do this, but research has shown that babies will mimic the actions of those that study her face. Is it any wonder then that parents, family and friends will spend long moments in a game of follow the leader with her?
Those marvellous infant eyes, unfocused though they may be, seeing edges through fog, are captivating. They speak loudly to those who love them.
The Fourth Trimester is for anyone who wants to improve the quality of their interaction with infants they meet. Brink takes us on a journey of the first three months with chapters devoted to sleeping, crying, feeding, sound, sight and stimulation — without forgetting mom and dad.
She combines personal experience and real-life stories with science to deliver a supportive guide that feels like getting advice from a knowledgeable aunt. The book is full of helpful information and practical advice which she delivers in an intimate way without lecturing or judgement.
I think that this book really shines a light on a time in the life of an infant and new parents that is new, exciting and confusing all at the same time. The information in this book was a tremendous help when we were navigating the first months with our daughter and I think this book is a must for any new parents.
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