Dads' Quick Guide to Self Care Through All Four Trimesters of Pregnancy
What, Four? Yep, Four.
To quote a dad in my recent Birthing From Within class: "What, Four?" "Yep, four."
Yes, dads, not only do you get to support your partner through the three well-known trimesters in pregnancy, you now can look forward to the final "trimester," the Fourth Trimester. The Fourth Trimester is actually the first 3 months of baby's life, and the phrase was coined by Dr. Harvery Karp, renowned pediatrician and child development specialist and author of the best seller The Happiest Baby On The Block. The Fourth Trimester refers to that period of time when baby and mother are inseparable, as it was designed by nature, for the first three-ish months of baby's life. And yes, dads, there are ways you can offer immeasurable support to your newly growing family.
But this article is a little different than most you've read. This is an article about how you can support yourself, as the birthing father. Got that? What can you do, as the dad, to get YOUR needs met, in turn supporting your newly growing family? There are loads of articles geared towards the birthing mother, and rightly so. I adore working with women, as their doula, birth mentor and childbirth educator. But I'm also a firm believer in that if we can acknowledge and support dad's process and initiation into fatherhood, the entire family benefits. Let's start at the beginning, shall we?
The First Trimester
I've talked with many dads and want to offer you some perspective on some ways you might consider supporting yourself through the first trimester. This is generally known as weeks 1 through 12. You're just finding out that you're expecting, and your partner is probably feeling pretty awful (In fact, this article by parents.com states that a full 75% of pregnant mothers experience some sort of morning sickness!). That can be pretty intense for you, too, as the reality of the pregnancy starts to sink in. What can you do, as your entire world begins to shift?
1. Stay in. If you're used to going out with your partner, you might consider some other ways you can enjoy your time together. If she's feeling ill, she'll appreciate your willingness to not only stay home with her, but to come up with something creative to do, that includes her. Maybe you can still watch Monday Night Football but this time pop some popcorn at home instead of going out? Maybe you can turn your Friday night happy hour into a Friday Movie Night in? You get the picture. Think of ways YOU enjoy relaxing and figure out how to creatively include your pregnant partner. It's wonderful practice for when you have a newborn and your social life takes a drastic turn, yet again. With some creativity, everybody can win.
2. Go to the prenatal appointments. You've heard to do this as a way to support your partner. But allow me to reframe this, as a way to support yourself. Pregnancy can make dads feel out of their element, and dads report that it often feels like they are invisible at the prenatal appointments. What if your goal in attending the appointments wasn't to just support your partner, but to also support yourself? How would your questions change? How would you try to get to know your birth attendant on a more personal level?
3. Take your role seriously. What if you started to realize, quite early on, that you are a main player in this event, not someone with a bit part? Some new dads share that it can be very disorienting to spend their entire life in the role of "son" or "brother" or "friend", to be thrown into the role of "dad" without any formal training! Recognize yourself for the enormous role you play in this birth. You are now the dad, and your new family is counting on you. Begin to imagine yourself at the birth, supporting your partner, and begin to formulate opinions through research and asking questions. It's ok if you don't yet know what questions to ask just yet. Just begin to awaken that part of yourself that knows you deserve support and respect in this birth, and that you are entitled to your opinions and questions and ultimately, answers. A good starting point might be to read my blog post called Some Like It Hot. It walks you through why choosing your birth attendant is so important, and might shed some light for you about what questions to begin with.
The Second Trimester
During weeks 13-27 the pregnancy starts to get a little more "real" for dads-to-be. You can physically see your partner's belly growing and may have had the 20-week ultrasound where you can see your little nugget up close and personal. What do you need, as the birthing father?
1. Read books on birth. There are plenty of far too humorous books out there for dads-to-be. Seems like our culture likes to joke on becoming a new dad. But there are also a couple of gems, some quality reads that you don't want to pass up. They might prepare you as you begin to discover what your questions are. Your path and your discovery are quite different from your partner's. Embrace it. I'd suggest you check out The Birth Partner by Penny Simkin and Birthing From Within by Pam England.
2. Connect with the baby. My husband has shared with me that it's a surreal experience to be expecting a baby when nothing (yet) has really changed for the dad. Sure, mom experiences the joys and pains of pregnancy, feeling kicks, living with a another human inside their body. But for dad, it can be difficult to grasp the reality of a little baby coming, especially if it's your first baby. My husband shared a bit of wisdom: find ways to connect with the baby now. Maybe that's preparing the nursery. Maybe it's reading a book to baby every night, through mom's belly. My husband is a guitarist and enjoyed playing music for our babies in the womb, and they enjoyed it immensely once they were born; in turn, he was able to do something enjoyable that also connected him to each unborn child.
3. Enjoy the calm before the "storm." The second trimester is known for being almost too easy. Don't be fooled, more intensity is coming! But for now, take care of yourself and your needs. Some dads like to get extra time in at the gym, finish up any projects they've been wanting to get to around the house, or go on that last vacation with their partner before baby arrives.
The Third Trimester
In weeks 27-42, you may be starting to think more about the baby, beyond something that seems intangible and more like an extension of yourself. Maybe you're beginning to think about how you envision your role of being a father.
1. Look into childbirth classes. Yes, this can be a huge benefit to you. Not all classes are created equal. Some teach the very basics of anatomy (like dilation and what's happening to the cervix. How does this benefit you? Quite minimally, in reality.) and how to be a good patient (how an epidural is administered, how an IV is administered). But what about what you really need to know? How your relationship might be affected during pregnancy and the postpartum period, how you as the birthing father can physically support your partner during the birth, what you can do to communicate effectively with your birth attendant even in the throes of uncertainty during your actual labor, how to go through inductions, cesareans or other medical support mindfully, how to encourage baby into their best position for a smoother delivery, how you can positively influence the breastfeeding relationship, and so much more. These are all included in the Birthing From Within® classes I teach. Know your childbirth class and childbirth educator before you get into another generic hospital class.
2. Learn and PRACTICE pain-coping practices. This serves two purposes. When you learn pain-coping, or mindfulness practices, you are learning not only how to support your partner during her contractions but to support yourself during moments of intensity during the birth. And I promise, every birth has them! Some are more intense than others. When you lean a practice such as Breath Awareness, you can utilize the skill yourself when your mind begins to race in too many directions at once. The second part here is to PRACTICE the pain-coping practices you have learned. It's sort of like muscle-memory in sports. Your pain-coping practices can become like second nature but only when you actually practice them. Learn them in a quality childbirth education class and practice them until the very day your partner gives birth. Practicing with your partner will also allow you to learn what works and what can be improved upon, so when it's time to give birth, your team (you and the birthing mom) are unstoppable.
3. Read books about baby's sleep and breastfeeding. This is really to keep your expectations in check. It's difficult to imagine that your sweet baby will wake you both up every hour or two for weeks (or months) on end, and that your little peanut also requires feeding every hour or two, too. I know, you're convinced you will have the baby that sleeps for four-six hours straight from day one. I hope you do! But history shows that you likely won't. Reading up on what is normal sleeping and eating behavior NOW can help you understand your baby on a deeper level and offer some compassion for them when you are exhausted. Reading up on sleep and breastfeeding may also offer you an opportunity to soften around the edges a bit when you are woken up, again, at 3am and allow you to connect on a very deep level with your baby and bond during that special middle-of-the-night time. Understanding how babies develop can reassure you and your partner that you're doing everything "right."
The Fourth Trimester
This is the one we alluded to up top. Once baby is born, it may feel like you're being pushed out. After all, mom and baby are in love, bonding, and inseparable. Biology is at play here; babies are hardwired to stay close to their mother not only for nutritional survival but as protection from danger. As my own father has been known to say, "Mother is the source of all goodness." So, where does this leave you? There's so much you can do to support mom and baby, like bringing her water every time she nurses, keeping her fed as she recovers, listening when she cries. But what about you? What about when you are dead-tired, rocked to your core after an intense birth experience and feeling out of place?
1. Sleep. Your partner has just been through an ordeal of a lifetime, no matter how baby decided to make their way earthside. She'll need sleep, rest, water, food, warmth, privacy...the basics. But YOU! You need sleep, too. The trick here is to communicate about your sleep needs before baby arrives. Sleep deprivation does funny things to our emotions and even the most steadfast relationships can be tested to their breaking points. Think about how you and your partner can work together to create a plan so that everybody is getting sleep (I call it "Newborn Normal"...It won't likely be sleep as you know it now, but more of a "Newborn Normal" state of sleep adequacy). Communicate ahead of time so that once baby arrives, you both have a loose plan to follow. This might mean trading chunks of time to be on baby duty overnight, or maybe a daytime nap trade, or maybe one night a week of grandma spending the night to help. Whatever works for your family.
2. Tell Your Story. Our culture really doesn't create a lot of space for dads to tell their version of their baby's birth. Dads aren't really sitting around the bar sharing birth stories. It's too bad, though. If more dads did, maybe we'd create a different culture around birth and fathers' roles within them. Remember that birth class you sought out? Consider inviting the dads over for coffee or a drink, or better yet, invite the mothers and newborns, too. Everyone needs some space to tell their birth story and to really be heard by others who can truly listen.
3. Suggest Family Outings. This one will benefit you, I promise. Mom is quite busy now, you've noticed, and spending a lot of time with the baby (like, every single moment). She may not think to plan a family walk or picnic. Come up with something small to do every weekend, to get out of the house and shake the monotony. The first few weeks or longer may be dedicated to physical recovery, so go slow. But if you can suggest some family outings you might just feed your own sense of adventure and spontaneity while you create memories and embrace your new role as Dad.
P.S. It's open registration for November birth classes! Most dads take birth classes solely for their partners benefit. But I promise, dads walk out of Birthing From Within classes with their jaws on the floor. I'm talking to YOU and you will understand yourself, your birth and your role on a deep level plus learn exactly what to do to support your partner AND yourself.
Not local to Fort Myers? Online classes are coming soon!
In case you missed them, here are a few of my recent blog posts: