It is a common refrain amongst girlfriends when they meet for coffee with their newborn babies in tow - that they are too tired, too overwhelmed, and too busy to think about sex. The accompanying complaint is often that their husbands do not seem to "get it," which, in some cases, leads to tension and resentment within marital relationships. What is it that makes it so hard to get back into a sexual groove after having a baby?
Women and men may struggle with their sexuality after having a child for many reasons. There are usually issues related to pain and healing from childbirth, whether a woman has had a vaginal delivery or caesarean-section. She may be coping with tearing or an episiotomy, as well as hormonal shifts that affect her sexual desire and lubrication. Pain during intercourse can persist for several months and changes to the woman’s body can result in longer arousal time, shorter and weaker orgasms, and slackness of the vaginal muscles, which can all affect a woman’s feelings of sexual satisfaction. Many woman also feel differently about their bodies after giving birth, as they can have the sense that their body no longer belongs to them, no longer performs as they want it to, or that pregnancy and labour may have changed their body, such as by altering their sexual organs. In addition, they may have concerns regarding body image, particularly as related to weight gain and the appearance of stretch marks. A woman may also be suffering from postpartum depression or adjustment issues, often resulting in a loss of sexual desire. Depression also includes a lack of energy and motivation, which can impact a woman’s desire to exercise or engage in activities that would help with her body image, self-confidence, and feelings of well-being.
The sheer exhaustion women experience after having a baby often results in them avoiding sexual activity. Not only are new parents tired from night-wakings and constant care of the baby, but becoming a parent also represents a major life transition that impacts both parents in many different ways. A new baby leads to permanent changes in lifestyle that require time to adjust to, such as with feeling confined in the home, being unable to pursue one’s own interests, and not being able to get a break from the child’s demands. Fitting in a shower or going to the bathroom start to be a challenge, let alone having sex! In addition, a parent can suddenly realize that they now have complete responsibility over the life of an infant, which can be very frightening and overwhelming. These changes can lead to stress within each parent, as well as within their relationship, which can have a ripple effect on their sex life. In some cases, both men and women are so caught up in the demands of parenting that they start to neglect one another, which can have a negative impact on their level of intimacy and sexual feelings towards one another.
New moms often pour the majority of their love into the new baby, which can interfere with their feelings towards their partner. Dads can be left feeling envious and resentful. Even though many of these fathers logically know that they are not being replaced by the baby, they still feel a lack of attention and affection from their partners, which can lead to more issues in the marriage. When a mom is breastfeeding, her needs for intimacy are often met through nursing, causing her to seek less physical contact from her partner. In addition, breastfeeding has many hormonal effects for the woman, such as less estrogen, which can lead to sex that is quite painful. Breastfeeding also affects prolactin and testosterone levels, which can have a negative impact on sexual desire. Along with everything else, breastfeeding is tiring, especially since feeding can happen so often. A breastfeeding mom often views sex as an additional demand on her body, leaving her feeling pressured and even more overwhelmed when her partner makes sexual advances towards her. This can be further impacted by various anxieties she may have about having sex, such as leaking breasts, being interrupted by a crying child, and being unable to turn her mind off from all of the things she needs to get done the next day. She may also have concerns about getting pregnant again.
In order to address these issues, open communication is very important so that each partner knows what is going on with the other, and does not make damaging assumptions about the state of their relationship. Unfortunately, many doctors and prenatal classes do not address issues of longer term sexuality for couples, leaving many to feel that once they have the medical “okay” at six weeks, that all will be well, which is very often not the case. If couples find that they are starting to become resentful or angry, or to have doubts about their relationship, counselling can help to enhance their connection and develop more realistic expectations of one another.
New parents can try a number of common sense strategies, as well as getting creative with their sex lives. Issues with pain can be alleviated by using lubricant, trying different positions, and enjoying more foreplay. A new mom can also breastfeed before sex, so that she is not worried about let down or the baby needing a feed. A reliable method of birth control can also help to alleviate stress over the possibility of pregnancy. In addition, the couple can work towards managing their stress levels by taking breaks, asking family members for help, lowering their expectations of themselves, and resting when needed.
For many couples, the passage of time will help to get past some of these issues, as the woman’s body heals and her hormones return to normal levels. However, the key to a healthy sex life may need to start with more of an emotional connection, as it is often difficult for a woman to become physically intimate without feeling emotionally close. The couple will need to make their relationship a priority and strive to enhance their connection, by having date nights, getting away for a couples’ weekend, cuddling or being affectionate, and setting aside some time to talk every day.
Even though the newborn stage will pass, parents may continue to struggle with being overwhelmed as the years go on, so fitting in intimate time can be a challenge. One of the best ways to make time for one another is to schedule in “sex dates.” While many couples balk at this as not being very spontaneous or romantic,it is possible that they may never make time for sex if they just wait for the right time to occur. Making an appointment not only ensures that they are setting aside time for each another, but it takes away issues related to initiation and rejection, as well as allowing them to mentally prepare for the encounter, by having time to put aside other thoughts or worries, forgetting about their “to do” lists, and starting to think in a more sensual, physical manner. It may also extend foreplay into the hours leading up to the encounter, which may help to enhance the experience.
Having a close and intimate relationship is one of the hallmarks of a marital relationship, but it is common for a couple’s sexual relationship to ebb and flow over time. Having a baby is one of those times where things may slow down, but if the couple can keep a longer term view, develop an understanding for each other’s perspective, and get creative with one another, they will be able to get back to a more intimate, loving, and sexual place.
- Dr. Tamara D. Hanoski, R Psych, 2011