Shy Krug, Ph.D., CST
10 things to expect for sex after becoming parents
Congratulations! You just became parents! In the whirlwind following the birth of your child, your life has likely turned upside down as you make the necessary adjustments to lack of sleep, increased financial obligations, baby accessories spread all over your home, and unsolicited advice from any person who has had, or ever was, a child. But as time passes, you (hopefully!) begin to create a bit of a routine, occasionally punctured by brief reminders of the changes you’ve undergone. Can I watch a TV show from start to finish? Can I eat a hot meal that's actually still hot? Will I sleep through the night undisturbed? (Spoiler alert, the answer to all these questions is probably "no", at least for a while.)
During the postpartum period, sex may be the last thing on the new mother's mind. The other parent may also experience a decrease in sexual desire. But as the baby’s mother continues to heal from the emotional and physiological strain of childbirth, and as your new baby begins to sleep for slightly longer stretches during the night, the new parents may begin to desire physical intimacy. Here are 10 things (among many others!) you can expect for sex after becoming parents.
Decreases in estrogen and increases in prolactin can have a significant impact on sex drive for the new mother--potentially for many months after the baby is born. For some, this might also result in increased pain or discomfort during intercourse.
Both parents may also experience significant decreases in sex drive. Lack of sleep, stress, physical fatigue, or lack of time, are only a few of the factors that may impact sex drive. No, there isn’t anything wrong with you if you aren’t interested in sex after the birth of your child.
Spontaneity in sex may be more difficult, if not nearly impossible, with a newborn or infant in the home. Scheduling sex or openly discussing the frequency of sex may be important. The idea that sex is only good if it’s spontaneous and organic may cause increased frustration to a couple. Planning sex can reduce pressure and allow the couple to plan accordingly, perhaps even preparing psychologically and emotionally. (More on this in an upcoming blog!)
Sex may not be a priority for one or both parents--you may choose sleep, a hot shower, or eating, over sex--even if you do have an interest in sex. Saying "no" to sex may be more a reflection on the need for self-care than a lack of desire for sex.
There is no “right” or “wrong” time for couple to want to start having sex again. The OB/Gyn giving the “green light” for a new mother to return to sexual activity does not mean she will feel physically or emotionally ready for sex. Issues related to the pelvic floor muscles following pregnancy might impact sexual function as well. Working with a pelvic floor physical therapist can be an important part of the process of returning to sex. Neither parent should feel the need to put pressure on when a couple resumes sex together.
Even if intercourse is not on the “menu” for a couple, physical intimacy and closeness may still critical for relaxation, offering support, and continuing to build your relationship. Non-intercourse sexual activity--snuggling, manual or oral stimulation, or sensual massage--can be a great way to create this physical bond even if intercourse is not possible or not of interest. As I discussed here, embrace the journey, not the destination.
The sexual script, which refers to how couples behave during sex or the kinds of sexual activities a couple prefers, may evolve after having a baby. For some new mothers, sexual activities that were previously enjoyed may no longer be as enjoyable and sexual activities that were previously not enjoyed may become more enjoyable. It may benefit a couple to engage in open dialogue as well as an exploratory approach when they re-engage in sexual activity to explore what is enjoyable for the couple.
Give yourself space for sex to not go how you’d like it to. If due to physical changes, sleep deprivation, or mismatched desire, among other reasons, sex may not go how it had in the past or how you’d like it to go. Many new mothers report feeling overwhelmed or feeling "touched out" by the amount of time they are being physically touched by their new baby. Touch that used to be seen as enjoyable may not feel the same way. A psychologically flexible approach as well as the "good enough sex approach", may be beneficial to a couple.
Even though there is no “right” or “wrong” time to re-engage in your sex life after having a baby, if you are noticing increased distress in your lack of interest in sex, are experiencing physical pain during sex, or having increased conflicts with your partner surrounding sex, talk to someone. A medical or mental health professional can be an important part of the process to improve your sex life. Many people experience shame when asking for help, particularly when it relates to sex, as there is stigma still attached to mental and sexual health. For many, seeking help may be seen as a sign of weakness or they may fear being judged by themselves or others. There is no shame in asking for help and your concerns are likely far more common than you might suspect. In fact, according to one study, more than 90% of women and 83% of men report at least one sexual health concern at 4 and 12 months postpartum.
PMADs, or perinatal mood and anxiety disorders, are common following childbirth. According to The Motherhood Center, more than 15% of women experience postpartum depression, 10% experience postpartum anxiety, and 60-80% experience the "baby blues". Co-occurring changes in sexual function are common side effects of these experiences.
For many new parents, the birth of a child is a source of unbridled joy. What many do not fully anticipate are the effects this new child can have on the couple's relationship and sex life. Continuing to build a couple's relationship while balancing the roles and responsibilities as new parents is a task that involves a deep sense of compassion and intentionality. John Gottman, in his research about sex and relationships, found that couples who discuss their sex lives and prioritize their sex lives tend to have the most meaningful sex across the duration of their relationship. While the new parents feel a desire to turn their energy towards loving and nurturing their new baby, the couple continuing to turn their energy towards loving and nurturing each other becomes even more essential to continue building their connection.