There we were, a group of girlfriends with newborn babies in tow, meeting over lattés. Inevitably, sex would come up…how we were too tired, too overwhelmed, and too busy to think about having it. And then there were the complaints that our husbands didn’t seem to “get it” which, in some cases, led to tension and resentment in our marriages.
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 continue for several months; 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 women also feel that their bodies no longer belong to them, that they no longer perform as they want them to, or that pregnancy and labour may have changed their body, including 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. Feelings of being trapped in the house, being unable to pursue one’s own interests, and the never-ending demands of a new baby take their toll on parents. Fitting in a shower or going to the bathroom start to be a challenge, let alone having sex! These changes can be very stressful for parents, resulting in stress in 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. Breastfeeding also affects women hormonally. Lower estrogen can lead to sex that is quite painful; changes in prolactin and testosterone levels 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 advances towards her. These feelings are made worse when she’s concerned about leaking breasts, being interrupted by a crying baby, and being unable to focus on sex, since her mind is often filled with all the things she needs to get done the next day. Getting pregnant again is also a huge concern for many new moms.
Talking about these issues is the best way to address them. Unfortunately, many doctors and prenatal classes don’t talk about longer term sexuality for couples, leaving many to feel that once they have the medical “okay” at six weeks, they’ll be good to go, 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, time will help to get past some of these issues, as the woman’s body heals or 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 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 because this isn’t 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 start thinking in a more sensual, physical manner. It may also extend foreplay in 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 marriage, 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 sexy place.
Dr. Tamara Hanoski is a registered psychologist (as well as a new mom) who has been in the counselling field for over 13 years. She provides counselling to individuals, couples, and families, as well as play therapy for children. She can be reached at (780) 604-8704, or visit her website at www.drthanoski.com for more information.