The Emotional and Physical Aspects of Sex after Childbirth

He wants your affection … you want to sleep


It can be hard to adjust to life with your new baby. You’re in pain, exhausted and emotional, and you need to care for this new needy infant. But your infant isn’t the only one with needs. Your husband wants your affection, too. When the right time to resume your sex life? And what are some of the obstacles facing new parents?

After nine months of pregnancy and grueling labor and delivery (or possibly a C-section), you’ve had your baby. Now you’re home, and between constant feedings and sleepless nights, you feel more like a cow-zombie than a woman. Every waking moment is dedicated to your helpless, needy infant. But your baby isn’t the only needy one. Your husband, anxious to resume life as it was pre-baby, wants to know when you’re going to have sex again. And all you want … is a nap.

Post-Delivery Discomfort

After delivery, doctors tell most women that they cannot have sex for four to six weeks, and most husbands begin checking off their calendars, counting down, explains Dr. Sue Edbril, an Instructor in Psychology in the department of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, who also has a private practice specializing in women’s issues. But sex is not on the minds of most new moms. Many new mothers are initially focused on pain either from an episiotomy or a C-section; these women cannot even urinate or sneeze without discomfort.

During this uncomfortable period, most moms should not be engaging in sex. Sara Mannix, a nurse practitioner in Watertown, MA, specializing in childbirth education, explains that while the length of waiting time may vary (often between four to six weeks), a woman should heal before resuming sexual activity. She advises waiting until the bleeding has stopped, as blood is a sign that your body has not yet healed. If a woman has had a C-section, considered major surgery, she will likely have a recovery time of about six weeks. Jenny Weaver, a nurse with Cambridge’s Harvard Vanguard Women’s Health and Obstetrics Department, agrees that there is no set time frame for waiting. How a woman heals depends on many factors, including the varying degrees of vaginal tearing and how long it takes her cervix to close again. In addition, “Many women just feel like they don’t want to [have sex] until after they’ve seen their doctor,” she says.

Medical issues aside, many new mothers simply aren’t interested in sex or are afraid of the discomfort they will experience, explains Mannix. Moms need to prioritize every day, and sex can fall low on their “to do” lists.

“Sex didn’t even cross my mind,” confesses Carol*, the mother of a one year old, who had a particularly hard time getting back to her old self. The stitches from her episiotomy did not heal properly, and she was in a lot of pain. On top of her physical discomfort, her baby was colicky and she was exhausted. “I felt gross. I was bleeding and sweating. I showered twice a day. I just felt very unfresh. My husband asked, ‘Are you ever going to want to have sex again?'”

The Battle for the Breast

While there is a major shift in the lives of new parents, the mother’s life changes more dramatically than her spouse’s. As their perception of their breasts changes from sex object to source of food and comfort, most new mothers’ bodies feel more maternal than sexual, explains Dr. Edbril. Leeann*, a mother of two-year-old twins, says she felt like a milk machine. “My priority was feeding. I was being touched all day. I didn’t feel like my body was my own. The last thing I wanted was to be touched by one more person — to have another person wanting a piece [of me.]”

Dr. Edbril explains that the notion of sex is different for women than it is for men. Women need to feel emotionally connected to have sex, but “men use sex to feel close to their wives,” she explains, and with their wives’ decreased desires, tensions rise. To make matters worse for a husband, many of a woman’s’ intense emotional needs are met through breastfeeding and her connection to the baby. Husbands sometimes feel left out, as they cannot partake in nursing, says Edbril. Leeann recalls her husband feeling as though there was suddenly a barrier in front of him, “What was once [my husband’s] was now someone else’s.”

Breastfeeding can act as a barrier to sex in more than just the physical sense. Carol nursed for nine months and felt her libido diminish dramatically. Her doctor explained that breastfeeding causes estrogen levels to drop; estrogen affects not only the libido, but also the lining of the vagina, which for her became dry, making sex painful. Carol talked to her doctor about her discomfort, and he prescribed a vaginal cream, which helped her tremendously.

Resuming Sex

It could take months before a couple’s sex life is back to normal, explains Mannix. Edbril estimates that it could take even longer – up to two years – and the “irony is that’s when [a couple] starts thinking about baby number two.” But Edbril believes that a couple should find more time together after about three months, when the baby sleeps for longer stretches. She offers some tips on how to resume a sexual relationship with your spouse:

  1. Normalize the situation: You and your spouse both need to understand that your lack of sexual desire, and less frequent sex, is normal. Moms have had a disruption to their bodies. Their “energy has changed, and sex is a different experience,” says Edbril.
  2. Be realistic and think about what you are both looking for.
  3. Figure out how to make that happen together.

“A big part of having a baby,” states Edbril, “is mourning that life will never be the same.” There is now a baby who needs constant attention, and the couples that adjust the best are those who accept, acknowledge, and embrace these life changes.

Couples can absolutely resume a normal sex life after having a baby. Leeann, who endured three months of sex-free bed rest while pregnant, resumed having sex with her husband only six weeks after giving birth. She admits to initially being scared about how sex would feel post delivery, but was shocked by how her vagina returned to normal.

“The good news is,” laughs Carol “After all that, my sex life is better than ever!” She suggests that new parents be realistic about their new situations. Life has changed; most of your time is focused on your child. “Sometimes,” she says, “You need to ignore the dishes, dirt, and laundry and just sit down and make the time to be together.”

*These names have been changed


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