How long until you can have sex again after childbirth? That is perhaps one of the most loaded questions that new parents face. Low libido is common in new parents, especially new mothers and especially in new working mothers, though you hear little about it. I co-parent a 5-year-old and work 40 hours a week, and the question of how your sex life can survive the juggle has been a topic of interest to me. There are myriad factors that impact your physical, emotional, and mental ability to be ready for arousal. On top of that, many women feel a gap between what is expected of them, and what feels good or appropriate for them postpartum. Sometimes the sheer worry that they aren’t having enough sex can further squelch their sexual appetite, but doctors rarely delve into women’s sexual satisfaction after pregnancy, making this problem both widespread and woefully unaddressed.
Most OB-GYNs will give their patients the green light for penetrative sex at about six weeks postpartum, but many of us find ourselves struggling to warm up our engines long past that point. As 29-year-old Mary*, mother of two, tells Romper, “My husband and I had an exciting sex life throughout dating and even pregnancy, but after the birth of our first child, I didn’t even have it in me to masturbate, let alone be touched by my husband. I was really afraid that it would affect our relationship.”
Romper spoke to sex experts about some common and not so commonly talked-about reasons why new mothers avoid sex, or have trouble feeling erotic, and delves into effective approaches to get you back into the groove. I note that each person’s sexual baseline differs — infrequent sex may be right for one person and inadequate for another. Let's get to the biggest reasons you may find your desire for sex sidelined after kids.
Stress Is Getting In The Way
Your body won’t allow you to be receptive to pleasure when you’re too anxious to relax. Your prefrontal cortex controls decision making, and it needs to be inactive for you to have an orgasm, or perhaps even get close. (This nifty video illustrates what happens in your brain when you orgasm.)
If you’re a working millennial parent, you have to juggle a lot. Our generation is the most underpaid and yet overcharged age group this century, according to The Luxembourg Income Study Database; supporting an expanded family can be difficult in an era of wage stagnation. Millennials earn 20 percent less than their Boomer contemporaries, according to an analysis of Federal Reserve data by Young Invincibles, and home ownership is much harder when you’re buried in student debt. No wonder “Netflix and chill” isn’t cutting it.
A person’s sexual life is impacted by their whole body health and emotional health.
If you took Psychology 101 you might be familiar with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs: safety, shelter, food, and rest are basic needs that must be met before things like love, intimacy and self-actualization can be achieved. It makes sense that a person can’t prioritize sexual health if their focus throughout the day is ensuring their offspring is fed, safe, has a clean butt, and has the right color plate for their snack.
What to do: Be mindful about how much you have on your plate, and give yourself permission to put sex aside when it’s not a primary concern. Acknowledge how busy you are, acknowledge the things in life that bother you. Journaling, jogging, screaming into a pillow — these are all things that I do to alleviate stress. Holistic sex educators and some sex researchers have found that a person’s sexual life is impacted by their whole body health and emotional health.
Dr. Chris Donaghue, author of “Sex Outside the Lines” tells Romper that simple acts of looking after yourself can help greatly. “We are a fully interconnected between mind and body: improvements in any area leads to gains in the entire system,” he says, “Simply being fully hydrated improves mood, and a weight loss and healthier diet alleviates many erectile or low sexual desire concerns.” Donaghue also recommends more time outside — more sunshine, literally — to improve your mood and help you connect to your loved ones. Ask yourself, how can you de-stress?
It might seem hard to picture that disheveled man struggling to get leggings on a toddler in a fantasy, and that does impact desire.
The Roles Have Changed
Your dashing, tall-dark-and-handsome mate now doubles as the diaper-duty companion. Perhaps your once-spontaneous spirit has been crushed beneath grocery lists and nap struggles. It might seem hard to picture that disheveled man struggling to get leggings on a toddler in a fantasy, and that does impact desire.
What to do: Improve the intimacy and connection of your relationship. In order to desire sex, sex has to be worth desiring. To increase the likelihood of sexual intimacy, focus on rebuilding intimacy in your everyday lives.
Kait Scalisi MPH suggests to Romper, “Turn off the Offs. Most of the time, sex advice advises you to add something. What I've seen over the last eight years of sex education is that taking care of your turn-offs is more powerful than any sex toy, position, or kink. That may mean de-stressing, navigating health issues, saying no, breaking your people pleaser tendencies, sending the kids to a family member's for a bit, or something else. The idea is to create the right context for sex, which for most people is low-stress, high-trust, and high-affection.”
If you can’t afford a babysitter or carve out a couple of hours, make a “mini date night” where you and your partner do something more than scroll your phones in bed with the TV on. I love self-care dates with my boyfriend; we wash each other's hair, scrub each other's bodies, I make him tea, we give massages or do face masks, and listen to my fave playlist. There is romance in ritual. Discover or create rituals that are new, inexpensive, and easy to replicate.
Sexologists know something that most of us don’t: People have different cues for arousal.
You Are Ships Passing In The Night
Babies are quite the hobby. Likely, you just don’t have the minutes for intimate pleasure. It’s true, you have as many hours in the day as Beyoncé, but she has assistants!
What to do: Consider how you spend your free time. I sat down and counted my social media use, and found that I was scrolling for two hours every day. Take the television out of your bedroom, and prioritize that space for cuddling, sleeping, spooning, or having sex.
You’re The Walking Dead
Rest is necessary for your body to heal and recharge, and lack of sleep is one of the most common reasons that people don’t engage in sex.
What to do: Prioritize sleep! People who get more sleep have improved body and brain function, and rest is necessary for both of you to have optimum sexual function. I have personally increased my quality of life by avoiding Facebook before bedtime — it’s easy to get sucked in and wonder where the minutes went. Make some chamomile tea, lower the lights and turn off the television and social media at least an hour before bedtime.
The next time you’re in bed together, put your cell away, and take part in a different kind of handheld playtime. In my home, vibrators are our best friends, because when Mommy and Step-Daddy are exhausted, truly too tired to move, we can plug in, and kiss and embrace while we vibrate our nethers to calm ecstasy. Try it. Just let the vibrations increase blood flow throughout your body, allow your mind to fantasize and escape, take some deep breaths, 1-2-3-4 inhale and 1-2-3-4 exhale, and enjoy your body’s production of the feel-good drug oxytocin. All of these things can be done solo or with your partner.
One Of You Is Hot To Trot, One Of You Is Not
Arousal incompatibilities with your partner are quite common. And sexologists know something that most of us don’t: People have different cues for arousal. Cisgender women are more likely to experience what sexologists call “responsive desire,” which means that they respond to sexy stimuli like touch or conversation. And cisgender males are more likely to experience “spontaneous desire,” arousal out of nowhere.
If your partner is whining and moping because they haven’t gotten laid in a while, that behavior is not sexy
So if your male partner is more commonly the one asking for sex, it’s because nature has made them this way. But I had more spontaneous desire in the beginning, you say, and yes, this is probably because you were running higher on dopamine when you were dating. (More on that later.)
Dr. Emily Nagoski talked about the different modes of male and female arousal in her book Come as You Are, arguing that a partner's misunderstanding the workings of female desire can further shut down their mate's interest in sex. In an opinion piece for The New York Times, she wrote, “What these women need is not medical treatment, but a thoughtful exploration of what creates desire between them and their partners. This is likely to include confidence in their bodies, feeling accepted, and (not least) explicitly erotic stimulation. Feeling judged or broken for their sexuality is exactly what they don’t need.”
Additionally, if your partner is whining and moping because they haven’t gotten laid in a while, that behavior is not sexy, and does not incite fantasy or relaxation.
What to do: Ask yourself what would make you feel attracted to your partner. As a working mom, I experience attraction to my partner if I receive plenty of emotional support, and help with tasks. Doing the dishes for us is sexy. Taking out the trash is sexy. Talking about your rough day is sexy. Making time for nonsexual contact is, well, sexy. There is evidence that I am not the only one who feels this way.
Sometimes the best thing your partner can do is lay the foundation for intimacy hours earlier… by pitching in around the house
Kait Scalisi, a sexual educator with a masters in public health, explains this common friction point to Romper by email, “One easy way to address this is to add sexy things throughout your day. Try: flirting, reading or listening to romance and erotica, and sexting (which can be as mild or explicit as you want). By the time you see them later, you'll be more ready to go.”
Sometimes the best thing your partner can do is lay the foundation for intimacy hours earlier… by pitching in around the house and covering the baby-watching duties while you get some sleep. Founder of the Institute for Sexuality Education and Enlightenment, a sex-educator certification school. Dr Rosalyn Dischiavo tells Romper that new moms might find it hard to achieve responsive desire if they’re harried. “When you’re a new mom, or you have multiple kids hanging on you a lot of the day, or you’re exhausted? Well then the 'stimulation' you’re going to be 'responsive' to is likely to be a good night’s sleep, or your partner pitching in a lot more than usual.”
Same Old, Same Old
It’s tough to get out of a rut, especially with the constant cycle of cooking, cleaning, bathing, and pottying. Your brain is craving excitement. Remember what I said earlier about dopamine and dating?
What to do: Mix up your routines! And don’t worry, you don’t have to break the bank or yank the kids from school in order to take a vacation.
As mentioned, your brain produces dopamine with every new and exciting and positive experience, whether that experience is sexual or not. And when two (or more) people experience these pleasurable hormone rushes together, they unknowingly create positive associations between each other. These shared experiences can translate into your bedroom life. Scalisi adds, “I often say what impacts your sex life the most has nothing to do with sex. It's how you feel about yourself, your partner(s), and your relationship(s)."
Next time you’re out with your partner, try a new coffee shop, taste a different kind of cream cheese on your bagel (or heaven forbid, get your hands on a cronut), take a different stroll through the neighborhood when you walk the pooch or take your toddler to playgroup. In a new dating relationship, part of the excitement is due to the unknown. If you want to remember what it’s like to date your partner, try new things, no matter how minute they may seem.
Your Body Is A Temple (Of Mac And Cheese, And Advil)
What you put in your body will affect the way it functions. It isn’t just antidepressants and Viagra that impact your libido, many over-the-counter and prescription medications can affect your sexual functioning. Likewise, living off Flamin’ Cheetos out of survival is less optimal than a Mediterranean diet. If you’re back on the pill, you should also know that hormonal birth control has been linked to depressed arousal. This list is by no means exhaustive!
What to do: Ask your doctor if your medication has any reported sexual side effects. Heck, find a new doctor if they don’t believe sexual health is an important part of your whole-body health. Change medications if yours negatively impacts your life in any way. By asking questions and giving honest feedback, you can improve the way that medication is prescribed and developed — patients deserve to have information about the things they pay to put in their bodies. And just like you (hopefully!) tell your kids: Eat lots of veggies and fruit, and drink lots of water.
It is perfectly normal to have long dry spells, and if you and your partner are happy without sexual touch, you should be!
You Have Great Expectations
Thinking your sex life is going to be the way it was before can be profoundly disappointing. It’s like looking in the mirror and expecting to see your teenage self: you’re not the same person you once were, and that’s OK.
What to do: Think of your sexuality as a timeline: always unfolding, developing, and changing. It is perfectly normal to have long dry spells (pun intended), and if you and your partner are happy without sexual touch, you should be! But if you’re like me, and you want sexuality to be part of your life, you have options for discovering pleasure in your body.
Mary says, “It took me a year postpartum to be able to enjoy intercourse with my husband. I had to go to therapy for a year, and it ended up being a blessing in disguise. Penis-in-vagina was not an option, and so we practiced reconnecting with other types of touch. Eye gazing, slow kissing, hair touching."
Ultimately, this opened their repertoire up and taught each partner more about the other. “Now I know that I have orgasmic earlobes,” she says.
Know that there is no “normal,” and experts support you in finding the approaches that make you happy.
*Her name has been changed by request.
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