Sex After Babies
by Susan Miller, BScN
Most people have heard of the “six week rule” about resuming sexual relations after giving birth. This rule implies that after six weeks post-partum, the couple’s sex life will be back to where it was before the pregnancy. Not so simple!
Mention the “s” word to any group of new mothers with babies less than a year old, and a collective groan rises up. Why is sex such a problem after babies? There are many reasons, and it is important that new parents are aware of the dynamics that can affect their relationship and sex life, and how to problem solve around them. Most couples have struggles around the sexual aspect of their relationship at various stages. For many couples, a new baby triggers the first stress and confusion in their relationship and sex life.
According to Dr. John Gottman, a social psychologist and researcher at the University of Washington in Seattle, 67 per cent of couples experience a significant drop in marital satisfaction after their first child is born, and experience eight times more conflict in their relationship. Similar studies done by Cowen and Cowen at the University of California over a 10-year period revealed that 92 per cent of couples have an increase in marital conflict and disagreement after their first baby is born.
Sex and intimacy is a major component of the couple relationship, but for a variety of reasons, resuming a fulfilling sex life after the birth of a baby is a challenge for many couples. Post-partum women often state that for them, having sex is just one more chore on the list. After childbirth most women find that it takes a lot of work and more time to summon up sensual feelings. A new father may find it hard to understand why mom doesn’t have the same desire that she once had. After all, it has been six weeks or more since she gave birth! This situation often leads to feelings of guilt, disappointment and resentment between the partners. What I describe below is representative of what new parents often encounter as they try to make sense of their sexual relationship after baby comes on the scene.
How New Mothers Feel
For many women, giving birth was a fulfilling and completing experience. For others, the birth experience may have been emotionally or physically traumatizing. The physical and psychological adjustment after birth takes time, and many aspects of this adjustment affect a woman’s desire and ability to feel sexual. As one new mother put it, “Every erogenous zone in my body hurt. Just the thought of sex was absolutely traumatic.” Yet another said, “All those sexual parts of your body are being used in a very different way, first to give birth, and then to breastfeed. It makes you think very differently about sex for a while.”
Breastfeeding affects a woman’s sexual desire because this is the way nature planned it! The hormones of lactation suppress sexual desire and protect the mother from becoming pregnant again too soon. Often breastfeeding mothers also experience vaginal dryness because of lowered estrogen levels so a vaginal lubricant may be required. It is important to remember that breastfeeding is not a reliable method of birth control!
Mothers have constant, close physical contact with their infants, especially when breastfeeding. The mother’s need for close human contact is often met by the baby, and she may not need as much from her partner. Many mothers report being “touched out” after carrying, feeding and giving to their baby all day. They want to say “please don’t touch me—I want to be left alone, I have nothing more to give right now.” This is definitely not good news for the partner who would like to have some physical closeness. As one mother put it, “Once the breastfeeding stops it gets easier, but for a while you feel like your body is being used and used and used and you just want a little private time. It’s a wonderful luxury just to be left alone.” Breastfeeding women tend to view their body as a mother’s body more than a lover’s body. Often the question arises, “Whose breasts are they anyway, the mother’s, the baby’s or the partner’s?”
How a woman views her body during pregnancy and after birth will have a significant influence on how she feels sexually. Extra weight and flabby tone are the most common complaints. Lingering soreness in the vaginal area can continue for many months, and recovery from cesarean birth varies from woman to woman. This is a time to be kind to your body in what you ask of it, and how you judge it. A woman’s body is forever changed after childbirth and it can take some time to get used to these changes and accept the new you.
Two women out of every 10 will experience some degree of postpartum depression. Any woman suffering from postpartum anxiety or depression needs specific treatment. It is also important to know that depression may not show up until several months after the baby’s birth. Getting help to deal with the depression or anxiety is essential before a couple can work on their relationship and sex life.
Fatigue, sleep deprivation, and the challenges and new responsibilities of parenting definitely effect how carefree and spontaneous a new mother feels, especially when it comes to sex!
How New Fathers Feel
New fathers may be just as exhausted as new mothers, and they have their own set of new worries and responsibilities. Many men are overwhelmed with concerns about supporting a growing family and securing their financial future. If a man has been used to being his partner’s first priority it comes as a rude shock to realize that the baby has nudged him out of first place.
If there were sexual problems during the pregnancy, the arrival of the baby may compound them. Some men find it difficult to appreciate the feeding function of the breasts, especially in a society where the breasts have been idealized for their sexual attraction. It can be traumatic for some men to have witnessed their partners’ body going through the birth process. This can have a profound effect on a man’s ability to feel sexual with his partner.
Some new fathers find that parenthood strengthens their feelings of love and sexual desire for their mate. Parenting the baby together is an intimate and rewarding experience for both partners. As time goes by, it is important to not let the couple relationship get lost in this exciting new role. The patterns that develop during the early years can be hard to break, and parents sometimes find that the child, not their relationship, remains the focus of their lives. This is especially true where sleeping arrangements are concerned. It is common to have a young baby in the parents’ bed in the beginning. It is also common for one of the partners to eventually leave the bed to facilitate a better night’s sleep for everyone. For many couples, a continued interruption of bedroom intimacy puts a strain on the relationship. Even the presence of the baby in the parents’ bedroom can be a big distraction from intimacy as the little grunts and squeaks of the baby seem to occur at just the wrong moment!
What Can We Do?
The first step in re-establishing a meaningful sexual relationship after the birth of a baby is to acknowledge that there is a problem. No family will likely experience all of the dynamics discussed above but it is fairly typical to encounter some issues around sex and intimacy after childbirth. Couples can start to re-establish their sexual relationship by identifying where they need to make some changes and by communicating their needs and feelings to each other.
Give your partner a big hug and kiss this Valentine’s Day!
Susan Miller, R.N. BScN, is a Perinatal Educator and Certified Breastfeeding Counsellor. She works with prenatal and post-natal families in the Greater Victoria area.