“The first three months are going to be difficult”
When our baby was born, amongst all the messages we received, one stood out. It was from an old friend of mine who now has two teenage children. He said: “The first 3 months are going to be difficult, but it gets easier after that.”
And he was right. The first three months are very difficult. You are dealing with sleep deprivation and trying to figure out what you should be doing with this little human you have created.
As a dad, it’s normal to feel a bit useless during this phase. And often, which was true in my case, you may not immediately feel any magical bond with the baby.
What I did feel was a massive sense of responsibility, fear and confusion. I remember thinking, what am I meant to do now?
Before the baby was born, I had heard about this concept of the fourth trimester. And as I was sitting there staring at this helpless little creature in front of me, suddenly it all made sense.
What is the fourth trimester?
The term ‘fourth trimester’ was coined by Harvey Karp in his best selling book ‘The Happiest Baby on the Block’.
The theory is that human babies are born three months before they are actually ready. Therefore, the fourth trimester of development happens after they are born.
There are different theories as to why this may be the case. But many scientists believe that as humans evolved to walk upright, the female pelvis became narrower. This meant babies had to be delivered earlier, with a brain that is only 30% of its adult size.
Whatever the reason, I’m sure any mother who has been through the pain of childbirth would agree that waiting another three months for the head to further develop is definitely not an option.
How this concept changed my mindset
Once I got my head around this idea of the fourth trimester, it made things a lot easier to understand.
Firstly, you can stop worrying about teaching your baby bad habits, spoiling them or doing something that will impact their behaviour later in life. It’s way too early for that. The baby is simply trying to survive and your job is to help keep it alive.
And If your baby is crying, it is not playing mind games with you or trying to manipulate you. It’s probably just feeling homesick.
So, if you need to calm a crying baby, one of the best things you can do is to recreate a womb-like environment.
What’s it like inside the womb?
Well, let’s think about what it would be like inside the womb:
It’s not quiet. The fetus is constantly exposed to noises such as the mother’s heartbeat and other everyday sounds from her environment.
There’s lots of movement. And there’s not much room in there, so the fetus is accustomed to feeling squashed and restricted.
It’s not completely dark in the womb either. There is quite a bit of soft light that enters through the mother’s skin.
By thinking of it this way, you can start to understand why a newborn baby might cry when it’s left alone in a dark silent room. It’s a stark contrast to what life was like inside the womb.
It also explains why babies sleep so well in moving cars. The bumps of the road, the hum of the engine and the fact they are tightly tucked into a nice warm car seat is creating a womb-like environment and triggering their calming reflex.
But a new baby is meant to sleep for about 17 hours a day and it’s not practical to be driving around for that long. If the cost of petrol didn’t kill you, you’d eventually fall asleep at the wheel.
So what other things can you do to recreate a womb-like experience and hopefully get your baby to stop crying?
The Five S’s for soothing a crying baby
Dr Harvey Karp recommends five tactics that you can use to help trigger the calming reflex in a crying baby. These are useful tactics to try, especially during the fourth trimester. He calls them the 5 S’s.
Every new dad needs to learn this trick. It’s like rolling a tight little burrito. You wrap them up and restrict their limbs from flailing around. Not so tight that it cuts off circulation, but probably tighter than you first think. There wasn’t much room in that womb after all.
2. Side or Stomach
This one worked well for our baby. You hold them on their side or their stomach. It’s kind of like holding a football under your arm if that helps you visualise it. I guess they spent a lot of time in this position whilst inside the womb, which is why it can help trigger the calming reflex. But this is only done whilst calming them. They should always be left on their back once they are asleep.
This one involves making a shushing sound like you’ve probably heard nursing mothers do many times before. Or you can utilise your masculinity to make a deeper humming sound. Whatever works!
And if you get tired, turn to google. We had a google speaker in the room, and all it takes is ‘Hey Google – play some white noise’. You’ll then get an endless soundtrack of background white noise. Just be careful it doesn’t put you to sleep first.
Whilst slow gentle rocking can help ‘keep’ a baby asleep, when it comes to soothing a crying baby, short, faster motions are what’s needed. Back and forth in a consistent motion is the trick. Or as my partner explained, you need to bore them to sleep with repetitive movements.
Sucking triggers the calming reflex in babies. In the womb, they probably sucked on their finger or toe. But seeing you have them swaddled up like a burrito at this point, you need to use something else. Karp recommends trying a ‘pacifier’ (that’s a dummy in Australian English). Our baby didn’t take to a pacifier, but he was happy to suck on one of my fingers if I offered it. Of course, he preferred his mum’s nipple – who wouldn’t. But if you find yourself in charge, give your little finger a go instead.
You can read full descriptions and further instructions for the 5 Ss here.
Does it work?
Now I should warn you, none of these tactics are guaranteed to work and very few of them will work on every baby. But by having them up your sleeve, you’ll at least be doing something proactive and might feel slightly less useless as a result.
My friend was right. The first three months are difficult. if you haven’t been there yet, brace yourself.
Hopefully, by understanding this concept of the fourth trimester, you can put things in perspective and focus on what’s important. It’s all about survival. Both the baby’s and yours.
Does it get easier? Well, yes, it does. But there will always be the next challenge. So in some ways it never gets easier, it just gets different.