Part IV: Sex after baby.
Most of us have heard the age-old narrative that your sex life disappears after you have children. You are exhausted and sleep feels substantially more important than sex; perhaps your focus and intimacy is on the baby – not on each other; or, perhaps your body no longer feels desire or arousal the way it once did. No matter the reasons (and there are countless more), for some, it is a terrifying prospect that your once beloved sex life may be one of the casualties in the transition to parenthood.
There is good news: Your sex life does not have to disappear when you become a parent. It does, however, have to change and evolve for your new life and the new (very significant) constraints of having a baby. The key is to approach this change with care, curiosity and flexibility for yourself and your partner.
Let’s visit some of the significant constraints that new parents face in rebuilding their sexual relationship and therapeutic strategies you can use to address them:
1. Sleep Deprivation; This is perhaps the biggest reason that parents name when they discuss the difficulty in reigniting their sexual relationship, post baby. Especially if your child hasn’t begun to sleep in longer stretches, the idea of trading in precious sleep for sex is hard to imagine.
It’s also important to note that sleep deprivation and exhaustion can impact your hormone levels, increase anxiety and irritability, and has been associated with greater conflict between partners. It’s hard to imagine wanting to have sex or any type of physical intimacy when your sole focus is trying to maintain enough energy for a baby whose needs are continuous.
Strategy: Take turns with the night time feedings and early wake ups (if you can) so each of you can get some longer stretches. Offer support if you know your partner is especially tired. If you are breastfeeding, your partner can sit with you during a middle of the night feeding - even if he can’t “do” anything, his presence is important and signifies that you are a team. You may be sleep deprived, but you are exhausted together, and can see the experience as a bonding one. Sex might not be on the table at this point (it is likely you will want to wait until you have more energy) but building the foundation of your new co-parenting role can be incredibly intimate, and knowing you are a united front will ultimately translate into an easier transition towards physical intimacy when the time is right. (There is nothing that will put you in the mood less than fighting with your partner about who is more tired. So, try to stay on the same team and avoid the rabbit hole of sleep resentment.)
2. Hormonal impact; the hormonal impact on your postpartum body can be very significant. Many women report feeling like they’re on an emotional roller coaster in the first few weeks and months after giving birth. (Read more about the signs and impact of postpartum depression and anxiety here.)
Breastfeeding mothers are producing a hormone called prolactin, while necessary for lactation, it is also responsible for lowering libido. Breastfeeding mothers bodies often suppress ovulation and their lower estrogen levels impact cervical mucus. Vaginal dryness may be an issue – causing sexual intercourse to be less enjoyable and even painful. If that wasn’t enough, breastfeeding also lowers female testosterone, which contributes to overall decreased libido. Source
Strategy: Talk to your doctor or therapist about concerns if you notice signs of postpartum depression or anxiety in yourself or your partner. If you are ready to have sex but it feels unpleasant, you can use a water-based lubricant to help with vaginal dryness and consult with your doctor for other alternatives. Most of all, remember what your body went through; give it time, and communicate if you are in pain. Share with your partner what you know about the shift in your hormones and the potential impact that may have on your libido. This will help create an environment of openness and help him or her understand that your lack of arousal may not be about them at all (they will likely have their own beliefs and reasons for why this is happening.)
3. Mismatched needs & expectations; This bullet point could be the topic of an entire book. Childbirth in couples (both heterosexual and homosexual) is entirely one-sided for a period of time. The parent who gives birth will inherently bear the burden in a different way, and if she breastfeeds, that one sidedness can continue for months (or years) postpartum. All this to say, that especially in heterosexual couples, fathers may have a difficult time understanding the multitude of changes happening in his partner’s mind and body. These factors impact desire and arousal, and it may cause frustration and confusion between partners that there has been a significant change in the couples’ sex life and perceived desire for one another.
Strategy: Talk about expectations with one another; so much of this chapter requires an open, honest dialogue about what is happening for each of you. Many partners may make assumptions about the reason for the changes in their sex lives; without asking your partner what they are feeling, both emotionally and physically, you may be completely missing the mark (and missing an opportunity to help.)
If this topic feels particularly fraught or scary, I’ve listed a number of resources at the bottom of the post that you and your partner can look to and, you can always schedule an appointment with a couples therapist or sex therapist to better understand and process the new sexual dynamics in your relationship.
4. Body insecurity, low self-esteem and not feeling sexy; Women – you just did something miraculous: you grew a human life inside of you for the better part of a year, and then went through a significant medical event in order to deliver the child. Your body went through a trauma and you may not be feeling your best, or look the way you did prior to your pregnancy.
In our current medical model, women have a 6 week postpartum check up (after a vaginal birth) in which, if everything is ok, they can be “cleared” to have sex with their partner. OBGYNs often hear their patients begging for more time, asking for a medical excuse to postpone this event, while many fathers are waiting anxiously for the green light.
Strategy: There is absolutely nothing wrong with not feeling ready at that point to jump back in the saddle; be gentle with your body and yourself. You may need more time to heal than a 6-week window. Take it slow and do what you need to do in order to feel your best. That can be anything from making sure you take a shower each morning, to putting on some makeup, to making sure you go for a walk outside and feel the fresh air, and drinking enough water each day. Self care looks different for each of us.
5. Overwhelmed by the new workload & lack of time; There are only so many hours in a day. Those hours are significantly decreased when you take on a newborn feeding schedule, or are chasing a baby around. Your free time feels virtually non-existent, and it can feel like there is a never-ending mountain of work (both domestic and professional) that builds. These stressors can act as a “brake” to halt sexual arousal and desire (Nagowski). If our minds are always thinking about what needs to get done or how stressed we are, we will likely have a much more difficult time transitioning to a sexy mindset.
Strategy: If we know our sexual drive and desire is negatively correlated with stress levels, this can be an opportunity to our partners not to complain about the lack of sex, but to ask – “what do you need help with?”
Parents need to practice self-care in order to be able to think about accessing desire for their partner. Often, this means lightening the load for your partner so they can have time to get back to themselves, and momentarily step out of mommy or daddy mode. Give them some time to see their friends (and get out of the house), to exercise (increased blood flow increases libido), and make sure you both are hydrated and fed (you need energy to have sex.)
Another helpful strategy for some is to schedule sex. For the partners who would like to increase the frequency in their sex lives but struggle to find the time in their schedules, try planning ahead. Either create a sexy calendar invite for your partner to let them know you are thinking about them, or have a standing date/time that you can connect physically. This requires a regular check in to make sure expectations are clear and flexibility with changing schedules. (For example, sending a text mid-day for your weekday “sexy time” to ask if your partner is still interested and committed to the plan for the evening. This not only helps avoid disappointment if things change, but can also help to build anticipation as the day goes on.)
6. Relying on baby for intimacy; This is a common trap for many new parents, especially new moms. As mentioned above, there is an evolutionary “one sidedness” to childbirth that is much more pronounced in the first months and year of a child’s life. Mothers often find themselves with longer parental leave to bond with the baby, and may choose to breastfeed, which requires nearly constant touch and necessary attunement with a baby’s feeding schedule.
This bonding is incredibly special, and it can be all consuming. This connection can feel so intense and magical that it begins to replace your partner’s intimacy. This quote from Esther Perel, in her book, Mating in Captivity, describes this phenomenon beautifully:
“Children are indeed a source of nurturance for adults. Their unconditional love infuses our lives with a heightened sense of meaning. The problem arises when we turn to them for what we no longer get from each other: a sense that we’re special, that we matter, that we’re not alone. When we transfer these adult emotional needs onto our children, we are placing too big a burden on them” (Perel; Kerner & Raykeil, p. 50)
Strategy: Make time for your connection outside of baby. As a couple, you need to build your reservoirs of connection physically, but also emotionally and intellectually. Sometimes date night can be just for that – for connecting, talking, laughing, eating. You can even try a “no baby” rule on date night - talk about anything but the baby. Remember how and why you connected before you became parents. Another favorite tip about date night from Esther Perel!
(Side note about date night: It can be hard to feel sexy and in the mood after a full meal, late at night. Be clear about how you’re feeling and help to differentiate between date nights and sex. If you wait for sex only on date night, it may be a while, and it can heighten the pressure around the evening.)
This list of constraints and strategies is obviously not exhaustive, and quite honestly just scratches the surface of this topic. I focused mostly on parents who are transitioning to parenthood for the first time, with one child and many of the strategies are “mother-centric”. Below are additional resources that I’ve found incredibly helpful and normalizing for couples in this stage of their transition to parenthood.
- Love in the Time of Colic, Ian Kerner & Heidi Raykeil
- How not to Hate your Husband After Kids, Jancee Dunn
- And Baby Makes Three, John & Julie Gottman
- Becoming Us, Elly Taylor
- Come As You Are, Emily Nagowski