So, you’re expecting a baby. Congratulations! Or, maybe you’ve had one and are curious about your post-baby sex life. Either way, you’ve come to the right place. Here’s the straight (scientific) truth about sexual pleasure before, during, and after pregnancy.
The Realities Of Pregnancy
No two pregnancies are alike. The same goes for women’s sexualities.
Getting pregnant may be a piece of cake for you and the most stressful, frustrating, and traumatic experience for your family member or friend.
Perhaps one commonality most women share when they are trying to have a baby is sex. And loooots of it! Frankly, perhaps too much sex. Sure, it may start off exciting and fun but, quickly and unexpectedly, sex can feel like a chore.
From “HUNNY! I’M OVULATING!!” to “Uh. Hunny. I’m ovulating…” gone are the days when you and your partner would have the best kind of sex: sex-for-no-good-reason!
If you’re one of the lucky ones who are able to conceive, being pregnant is likewise diverse.
While our bodies go through similar changes—hormones flood our bloodstream, our breasts enlarge and may feel tender, fatigue, nausea and a constant urge to pee becomes part of routine, and our bodies undergo what can only be described as the original, head-to-toe ambush makeover—how we experience these changes can vary from woman to woman, and pregnancy to pregnancy.
For some, it’s an absolute pleasure. For others, it’s a nightmare. Regardless of where you straddle that line, you will likely wonder, at some point or another, how (if at all) to straddle your partner.
Then comes baby.
Ahhhh. That footmark from inside your tummy is now right there, in the flesh. And so begins one of the most fulfilling, but demanding, times of your (sexual) life.
Your sleep is interrupted, your boobs are no longer yours, and doin’ it may be the last thing on your “to-do” list.
All of this—combined with a wide range of other factors (e.g., pre-baby sex life, mental health, relationship quality and length, type of delivery, whether or not you breastfeed, where your baby is sleeping, etc.)—can, understandably, affect your sexuality and your sexual relationships.
How Pregnancy Can Affect Your Sexual Life
While 10-20% of women say they experience increased sexual desire, frequency, and satisfaction during pregnancy, the majority report the opposite.
According to research by Dr. Natalie Rosen at Dalhousie University, about half of women report at least one fear that lead them to avoid sex while pregnant, such as bleeding, infection, or harming the fetus—fears that are unwarranted for low-risk pregnancies.
Many women, though, just don’t want to have sex. If your desire is pretty non-existent during pregnancy, that’s normal. What’s also common, but not very helpful, is feeling guilty about not wanting to have sex.
The reasons for this guilt can vary but I will say this: asserting your own needs, and not being shamed by that, can be difficult in our society. Social norms guide our relationships and sexual behaviours, unbeknownst to us. And they can fuel a feeling, in heterosexual interactions, that we, as women, have to comply in satisfying men’s desires. Obviously, that’s not true.
So, what happens to sex after childbirth? Well, studies estimate about 40% of heterosexual couples resume vaginal sex by six weeks (the doctor-recommended waiting period), 65% by eight weeks, 78% by 12 weeks, and 94% by six months. Research also suggests that the frequency of sex may not return to the same level until 12 months post-delivery. All of this is normal.
So, when your doctor says, “Go for it!” at six weeks, don’t be surprised (or hard on yourself) if you feel a sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach. That’s normal. Many women say they could barely walk after childbirth, let alone think about getting busy. For some, the pain—and fear of even greater pain—may hold you back. And guess what? That’s normal too. What’s not normal is the normalization of pain for your partner’s pleasure.
Most women report a reduction in sexual desire. For 70%, their level of desire is lower than that of their partner’s.
Interestingly, whether due to societal expectations or our own, a drop in sexual frequency is the most common sexual concern expressed by women and partners, both during and after pregnancy, according to a recent study published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine. But it’s not the only concern—changes and challenges with sexuality involve much more than sexual intercourse.
- Many women report feeling differently as sexual beings. Your priorities shift and you may start thinking of yourself more as a mother than as a woman with your own wants, needs, and sexual desires.
- Struggles with body image are also common. About 40% of women feel less attractive during pregnancy. Many more wonder whether (and how fast) they’ll get their “old body” back. (This relates a lot to how much of our value, in society, is wrapped up in our bodies.)
- Most women report a reduction in sexual desire. For 70%, their level of desire is lower than that of their partner’s. In the academic world, it’s called “sexual desire discrepancy”. In the real world, it’s called “give-me-a-break-I-just-pushed-a-watermelon-from-my-vagina” (or for those who had caesarean births, “give-me-a-break-I-just-had-a-watermelon-pulled-from-my-uterus”).
- What’s perhaps more interesting is not this mismatch in desire but its underlying cause. Studies show it has a lot more to do with not feeling close enough to or wanted by your partner, rather than the physical effects of pregnancy and childbirth (not to underestimate your watermelon birthing experience!).
If you’re feeling troubled by any of these sex-related worries, know that you’re not alone: 89% of new mothers and 82% of new fathers report at least one sexual concern, according to a study of 239 heterosexual couples with infants under one, led by Dr. Rosen.
Realise that there is no “right” amount of sex—only what’s right for you.
In my own very scientific research (study population: four friends—one trying to get pregnant, another expecting, and two with kids), it seems that that a big part of the confusion and concern that arises is the result of both partners not knowing how their sex life may potentially change, the reasons why, and the reminder that the change will not necessarily be permanent.
“There is so much focus on the fetus/baby during pregnancy (as there should be) that a mother’s physical discomfort or concerns—including those of a sexual nature—are often shrugged off or ignored all together by treating physicians, unless they directly impact the health and well being of the baby,” explains a friend in email. “I suspect many women don’t discuss concerns related to intercourse with their physician during or after pregnancy because they feel those concerns are selfish or a low priority.”
Scientifically Proven Ways To Find Pleasure In Pregnancy
“Couples need to talk about how their sexual experiences and preferences may be different while pregnant,” says Dr. Rosen. “It’s ok to tell your partner that you’re not as in the mood for sex right now. Being accepting and understanding of your partners’ sexual needs —whether that’s the need to have sex or not to have sex—plays an important role in sexual desire and satisfaction.”
In other words, sexual communication is key. But this can be challenging, says Dr. Rosen, who developed a series of short films on the topic, which she dubbed #postbabyhankypanky. The goal of this video series—all based on research conducted by Dr. Rosen and her team—is to normalize sexual changes and challenges post-baby and open up the lines of communication between partners about their sex lives.
Good, science-based informationcan transform an awkward, stilted conversation about pregnancy and postpartum sex into an enjoyable, enlightened discussion. So, here’s some advice—and perhaps, conversation starters—to help maximize pleasure for you and your partner:
- Realise that there is no “right” amount of sex—only what’s right for you. We all experience the ebb and flow of sex in a relationship. That’s especially true in pregnancy.
- Understand that, oftentimes, “low” desire is really responsive desire: an erotic stimulus (be it, a book, film, fantasy, kiss, or hot shower) may just be enough to get you in the mood.
- Experiment with different positions (on top, side-to-side, doggy style, etc.) and different types of sexual activities (kissing, touching, oral sex, self-pleasure, etc.). Studies show that orgasms are more common among those with a greater sexual repertoire.
- Try integrating mindfulness practices into your sex life. If you find yourself distracted during sex, non-judgementally re-focus your attention back to your breath, back to your partner’s touch, and back to the feelings travelling up and down your body.
- See a Pelvic Floor Physiotherapist. The muscular base of the abdomen (which supports our organs, from the bladder to the anus, and lines our vaginal walls) stretches a lot during pregnancy. This can lead to incontinence and pain, and may also have a negative impact on penetrative sex and orgasm.
- Don’t forget that pleasure is multi-faceted. Connect with your partner emotionally, not just physically. Studies have found that feeling appreciated and understood by a partner is very important to enjoying sexual life, both during and after pregnancy.
- And finally, take time to care for yourself and your body. While positive and sexually affirming comments from a partner may be wonderful (at the right time and place), what’s even better is letting go of ridiculous body ideals. You are not a before and after. Focus on what your body can do, rather than how it looks.
Your body is making a human! I think we can all take great pleasure in that.
This article was originally published in Find Your Pleasure.
Join the conversation! Comment below. Tell me, what has helped you to manage your expectations about pregnancy and postpartum sex?