Having a baby is often portrayed as one of the best things that happens to a couple—and one of the worst things that can happen to a woman’s body.
It can also put new stresses on a partnership, especially when it comes to sex and intimacy.
The way Clinical Psychologist and Therapist Megan Warner
has seen it play out IRL, demands on each parent are higher, there are identity changes in how each parent sees themselves and each other, there is a new pressure and sense of obligation to care for a new human, all of which can create a sense of distance between partners. After a woman gives birth, her doctor tells her she must take some time for her body to fully heal before she and her partner can resume sexual intercourse.
Your sex life, says Warner, may have been compromised pre-baby if you weren’t feeling good about yourself or your body, or if your partner worried about sex with you and how it would impact you or the baby.
Often after a woman gives birth, one of the things that she and her partner look forward at the six-week postpartum checkup to is the moment when the doctor says “You can resume having sex.”
“For some women, this is a relief, as they’ve been waiting eagerly for the opportunity to return to this aspect of her relationship, to connecting to her body and her partners body as two adults, rather than experiencing herself and her body as vessel for baby,” says Warner. “However, some woman absolutely dread the doctors appt where they are given the go ahead. They do not want the ‘go ahead,’ and permission from the doctor is not always met with relief or joy.”
Warner breaks it down:
- Hormonal factors: breastfeeding tanks a woman’s sex drive because prolactin (makes the milk) suppresses estrogen (contributes to sex drive).
- Physical exhaustion: a baby’s sleep schedule and feeding demands makes it hard to get sleep...when deciding to have sex or go to bed, many new moms choose bed.
- Feeling touched out: carrying, changing and, in many cases, breastfeeding, can leave a woman “touched out” and uninterested in physical contact with her partner.
It often feels confusing and disorienting for a new mother to feel uninterested in physical connection, particularly if physical intimacy had been a significant part of her relationship prior to the arrival of the baby.
“The most important thing a woman can say to herself that will speak to the guilt of ‘I should be wanting my partner more’ and in some cases the shame of ‘what is wrong with me?’ is ‘This is normal. this makes sense, there’s is nothing wrong with me, and this is something that is solvable,’" Warner says.
Medically, says Anna Villarreal, women’s health expert at The Doctor Weighs in and Founder of LifeStory Health, if you’ve endured complications during your pregnancy, you most likely have to avoid intercourse so as not to accidentally induce labor.
“These women often find that this long gap in sexual activity makes it less likely to bounce right back into their normal sex life,” Villarreal says. “Some women develop conditions affecting their vagina, so it can take longer to get to that place of arousal simply because it feels different.”
With all of that being said, there are other ways to engage in intimacy, either with yourself or a partner, that don’t relate directly to sexual intercourse or oral sex or stimulation (more on that later).
The message to your partner can be a small modification of this.
Using facts, rather than offering opinions and interpretations, is a great way to keep conversations from getting intense, and from either or both parties from feeling defensive.
For example: "It has been 2 months since we have had sex."
Note that there is no apology there, for there is nothing about which to apologize. Then, a validating statement: "I know you have been wanting to connect with me physically, and this makes sense to me. At the same time, I have noticed that my sex drive has changed since the baby arrived."
Again, note the absence of an apology.
"This is a normal thing that happens, this doesn't mean there is something wrong with me or with us, and this is solvable."
“Solutions can include lubricant to address postpartum physical changes, intentional time away from the baby to shower, have a lunch date with a girlfriend, anything that would help her connect with herself as a woman, rather than just a mom,” Warner says.
Birth trauma is real.
Readiness for sex is a physical issue and an emotional issue. Sometimes, women have very scary births— the birth didn’t go as planned, it was an emergency c-section, the perineum was torn or cut, and it can feel scary to let anything come anywhere near an area that for her (and sometimes for her partner) is attached to a traumatic experience. If a woman has a history of sexual trauma, a birth trauma often triggers anxiety and reexperiencing.
“A birth trauma usually be definition involves a loss of control and a sense of helplessness and powerlessness, and it involves the same area of the body as a sexual trauma, all of which can trigger a trauma reaction: reexperiencing specific memories, anxiety, anger, and a desire to avoid additional triggers, like anyone touching her body, that might trigger reexperiencing and/or intrusive thoughts. Even without the experience of birth trauma, some sexual assault survivors may welcome the break from the expectation of sexual contact,” Warner says.
In the case of a birth trauma, increased anxiety, re-living the experience and avoidance of things that remind her of the trauma are signs that a woman needs support, and ideally an excellent therapist, to emotionally heal.
Getting Back in the Sack
“An emotionally and physically rested woman is much more likely to contemplate her interest, and the steps she may want to take to reignite the spark within. I like the word "head space" for this. We need to actively create time to think, reflect, and self-assess,” Warner says.
One step that a couple can take is to make the time to watch a movie together, or even nap, together, without the baby. Hold hands, snuggle, begin by enjoying each other's physical presence without any expectation of sex.
Dr. Zaher Mehri, MD, Director of Research and Development at New Hope Fertility Center, says that one of the biggest misconceptions is that a woman will have her vaginal area “stretched forever” after a vaginal delivery.
Good news: that’s a myth.
“Very few women will have vaginal wall weakness, known as prolapse, that will need some Kegel exercise, and many women will have the vaginal area healed and back to normal,” he says. “Every woman heals at a different rate. Some women take two weeks, some need six.”
Regardless of the “wait time,” says Dr. Mehri, partners need to be understanding and patient. Period.
Masturbation can also be an empowering way to satisfy urges—either together or separately—in a way that feels safe.
“This is a great way for her to explore her body and for her partner to do the same, taking the penetration fear off the table,” Warner says. “This is actually all consistent with the sensate focus technique, to take orgasm and penetration off the table and just touch for pleasure.”
If you are going to masturbate, we have a couple
of suggestions for you.
Villarreal says that among the women she works with and speaks to, the anxiety around resuming sex with their partner actually isn’t actually mainly about fulfilling a need or as it is about a desire to feel safe and comfortable and get past that initial fear of pain or discomfort.
“They really want to feel like themselves again,” she says. “Some women, mainly first-time moms, had ‘no sex drive’ and feared they would never want to have sex again...ever. Seasoned moms didn't have this worry because they’ve already been through the post-partum process.”
In The Era of #MeToo….
“Consent is very important to discuss when we talk about the six-week visit doctors appt,” Warner says. “Men are often relatively unaware of the complicated experience that resumption of intercourse brings a new mother. Some partners will complain to their wife that the weeks of waiting are giving them ‘blue balls.’ While some women would not be influenced by this, others will feel obligated and guilty, and may be more inclined to have sex even though they don’t want to.”
Does this mean they didn’t consent? Is acquiescence an absence of consent? These are difficult issues that we must still negotiate even once partnered and/or married, Warner says.
Therefore, it’s crucial to prioritize date time to connect emotionally, and have open, honest conversations about sex and consent within the partnership? What does it look like for you to be ready? What about your partner? What feels safe to get both parties there?
“There are a lot of ways to satisfaction other than intercourse. A women should NEVER apologize if she is not ready and the man needs to educate himself on how to cope with the issue,” says Dr. Merhi. Mutual understanding and respect is crucial during the postpartum period.”
And if you’re feeling afraid, guilty, or insecure, remember this: you chose your partner for many more reasons other than sex, and–we hope—you’re solid in so many other areas of your relationship that this can be a time to lean on and learn about each other, rather than live in fear and frustration. Having a baby does change everything, so now’s a good time to start practicing growing, changing, and adjusting together, both inside of the bedroom and out.