On the surface, pregnancy may seem like it’s all about preparation: a registry to build, a nursery to set up, a name to pick out…the list goes on. But talk to any new parent and they may tell you they had no idea what it was actually going to be like.
That’s because few people plan for the realities of life with a newborn, specifically those first few months after birth known as the fourth trimester. “Not only are support systems for new parents lacking in this country, but it’s also hard to really know what to expect until you’re in it,” says Dr. Pooja Lakshmin, a psychiatrist and the founder of Gemma, the first digital education platform dedicated exclusively to women’s mental health.
That’s where we can help. We may not have a window into your exact postpartum experience, but we do have access to trusted health practitioners who specialize in helping people plan for the perinatal period, a.k.a. pregnancy and the first year postpartum. Here are six things they suggest doing before your baby’s debut.
1. Stock Your Bathroom With Recovery Essentials
What do you have on hand to help you recover from birth? If the answer is nothing, you’re in good company. Registries are often exclusively for baby products, but you can (and should!) add items specifically for you, Dr. Lakshmin says. (Not sure where to start? Check out these 16 products for an easier postpartum recovery.)
If you deliver in a hospital, the staff will likely provide you with things like disposable mesh underwear, perineal ice packs, and witch hazel pads—all of which can help soothe inflammation and pain. But it’s still a good idea to have your own supply at home, especially because no one wants to gear up for a trip to Target in those first few days after delivery.
2. Build Your Support System—and Say Yes to Offers to Help
Lining up postpartum support while you’re still pregnant—before things get too hectic—is so valuable, says Nicole McNelis, a licensed professional counselor and perinatal mental health expert in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania.
Her recommendation: Think about what would be most helpful based on your needs, wants, or worries, and then make a list of how you might get that support. “It can include family, friends, and/or professionals. The goal is to know who you can contact, when, and what you can expect from them,” McNelis says. Here are a few examples:
If feeding is a concern, you might line up a lactation consultant. Sometimes it’s covered by insurance (call your provider to confirm).
Worried about sleep deprivation? Arrange for family and friends to come over at certain times so you can nap.
Time to cook will be hard to come by. Ask someone to organize meal deliveries during the first few weeks postpartum or add a meal fund to your baby registry.
“It’s such a comforting feeling to know that while you’re caring for the baby, your support system is caring for you,” McNelis says. Embrace that comfort without one bit of guilt.
“Life is full of seasons of giving and receiving, and the fourth trimester is definitely your season for receiving,” says Chelsea Crow-Fuentes, a licensed marriage and family therapist based in Orange County, California. “You deserve the help, and people want to support you.”
3. Practice Setting Boundaries
The job of a parent comes with the fierce responsibility of protecting your child, Crow-Fuentes says. That means you have full reign over what boundaries to set to best support you and your family.
This is often easier said than done—no one wants to disappoint their in-laws by saying they can’t come to see the baby, for example. But learning to clearly communicate your needs from the start will only help you maintain healthy relationships with the people you love most.
Boundaries around postpartum visitors are a good place to start. Here are some things to think about in advance:
Who is welcome to come meet your baby during those first few weeks?
What are your expectations or “ground rules” during those visits? (Are masks required? Do you want to limit the duration or number of guests for each visit? Will out-of-town visitors stay with you?)
What type of physical touch are you comfortable with?
How might you or your partner respond to people who try to overstep your boundaries, including (if not especially) family members?
You don’t have to be harsh in communicating boundaries. For example, if an old friend asks to come over, you might say, “Thank you so much for asking! Right now, we’re only introducing the baby to immediate family, but we’d love to see you in a couple of months once we’re more settled.” It’s clear, compassionate, and totally free of contempt.
4. Prepare for Postpartum Emotions
The fourth trimester is an emotional rollercoaster. There’s a lot of joy and wonder, but it can come with weepiness and mood swings. In fact, experts estimate up to 80% of birthing parents experience the “baby blues,” 2 or feelings of sadness, anxiety, and overwhelm in the first two to three weeks postpartum.
This is a completely normal side effect of both the massive hormonal shift that happens after birth and the acute stressors of new parenthood, like sleep deprivation or not eating super well. You might find yourself:
Crying for seemingly no reason
Feeling moody or cranky
Having a hard time sleeping or making decisions
Feeling lonely or cut off from friends and family
Whatever symptoms you experience, know that the baby blues are short-term and typically go away without any treatment, Dr. Lakshmin says. Until then, getting as much sleep as you can and finding pockets of time for yourself can help you feel better.
If sadness, panic, or any other upsetting feelings stick around beyond the first month, check in with your healthcare provider, Dr. Lackshmin says. You might be dealing with a perinatal mood and anxiety disorder (PMAD) such as postpartum depression (PPD) or postpartum anxiety (PPA). While they can feel debilitating and isolating, PMADs are very common (up to 20% 1 of people experience them) and highly treatable.
5. Know Where to Find the Help You May Need
“Setting yourself up for success in the fourth trimester might involve proactively seeking out a therapist who specializes in perinatal mental health,” Crow-Fuentes says. You don’t need a diagnosis first. Parenthood—particularly new parenthood—is hard, and a therapist can help you work through whatever emotions you’re feeling.
How can you find a therapist? The provider directory from Postpartum Support International (PSI) is a great place to start. PSI also has volunteer support coordinators in every state who can help you find a good fit for you.
A therapist isn’t the only kind of support available. Connecting with other parents who are in the thick of it can also help you feel less alone. Here are some apps and online resources that make it easy:
Peanut: a free app that offers a “safe space for women to meet, ask questions and find support”.
Expectful App: a mental health app that offers meditations and more.
Dear Sunday Motherhood: an online platform with intimate virtual mom groups.
Union Square Play: an online community with classes (for kids and adults), events, and more.
ParentQuest from Lucie’s List: a database where anyone anywhere can find a local parent group.
Dad’s Only: a private Facebook group where more than 100,000 members discuss all things fatherhood.
6. Have Some Fun
It’s a simple but powerful tip. “There’s a lot of value in embracing the babymoon, or a celebratory vacation you take before the baby arrives,” McNelis says.
If a trip isn’t in the cards, take some time to relax, connect with a partner or friends, or focus on doing things you love. This helps you be intentional about putting yourself first sometimes, which will be very important in the weeks, months, and years to come.