The Fourth Trimester: Learning to Cope During the Loneliness Epidemic

fourth trimester

In 2020, health insurance provider Cigna did a study that found three in five Americans suffer from loneliness. The study showed that loneliness not only affects mental health but physiological health as well, equating to the negative impact of smoking fifteen cigarettes a day.

New moms frequently report feelings of isolation and loneliness after the birth of their children. This period of time is often referred to as the fourth trimester and can be challenging. Many miss the camaraderie once shared with colleagues at work while others are sleep-deprived and struggling to find time for self-care while caring for their infant.

“The fourth trimester usually refers to the three months right after delivery of the baby,” said Dr. Katherine Gold, MD MSW MS, associate professor from the Department of Family Medicine at University of Michigan Depression Center. “As a family physician, I know that care for parents doesn’t stop once I deliver their baby. Having a newborn can be both wonderful and overwhelming at the same time.”

New Parenting During a Pandemic

Add a global health pandemic to the mix, and the challenges can seem insurmountable. New parents are trying to find a balance between meaningful social interactions, while at the same time practicing social distancing for health and safety.

“Moms are so protective of their new baby and may stay home to protect their baby’s health,” Dr. Gold said. “With COVID, far fewer families are having friends or relatives come over, help with childcare, or help new parents adjust. I think it also means there are fewer chances to see that others may be struggling, too, and fewer chances to get positive feedback about your new baby, which can help boost self-esteem when you don’t feel like you’re doing well.”

Ways to Get Connected

What can new moms do to overcome these feelings of loneliness? Dr. Gold offered some suggestions:

Make a Friend Date

“It’s really helpful to reach out to others, to meet up when possible (masked and socially distanced or outside if possible), and to participate in any virtual options you can find.”

Walk It Off

“Trying to maintain daily exercise such as walking, can also help you feel better emotionally.”

Get Vaccinated

“All the major medical organizations encourage COVID vaccination for pregnant and postpartum moms, and this also makes it safer for you to have a little more socialization with others while passing on antibodies to your baby if you are breastfeeding.”

Take a Class

“Most people miss out on the informal camaraderie that happens when you are in a face-to-face group with others. I’ve seen fewer options for these classes during COVID, which has been hard on families.” 

Look for groups that offer support and encourage friendships. Breastfeeding groups, MOPS chapters, and baby storytimes at the library can be a good place to start. Local hospitals also offer new parent support groups.

“You miss out on a lot of nonverbal cues in an online group, and people may be less engaged. For most of us, being around other people, in person, is really important.”

Find Your Lifeline Online

“Online groups can be extremely helpful when people are feeling shame or stigma around health problems, losses, or postpartum depression because it can be a little more anonymous. And having small, facilitated online groups may be a lifeline for moms who don’t have a lot of support at home.”

Remember to find a balance between social platforms and face-to-face interaction. In the study, Cigna found that heavy social media users reported a significant increase in feelings of loneliness and isolation.

A Gentle Reminder

Dr. Gold reminds new moms to be gentle with themselves, and keep in mind that things do get easier with time.

“Recognize that being a new mom can be really hard. Once the excitement from having a baby wears off, you realize that early motherhood includes lots of feeding, laundry, cleaning, and baby-soothing without much sleep or time for yourself. It’s normal to feel overwhelmed, lonely, and discouraged at times, and that doesn’t mean you are failing or a bad mother.”