Breastfeeding can cause a variety of changes, in both body and mind, during the postpartum period. Many lactating parents might notice they don't have a sex drive while breastfeeding, and a change in libido can be a cause for concern for parents who are hoping to feel back to "normal" post-pregnancy.
Romper spoke to four lactation consultants to learn more about the biological and psychological forces that result in loss of libido for lactating parents.
Gerria Coffee, lactation consultant and postpartum doula, tells Romper that when higher levels of the hormones prolactin and oxytocin, which are necessary for milk production and let down, impact a lactating parent’s estrogen and testosterone levels, their sex drive can drop. Further, Allega Gast, a registered dietician nutritionist and international board certified lactation consultant, tells Romper that “prolactin suppresses estrogen levels, which decreases your sex drive as well as contributes to vaginal dryness.”
Lower levels of estrogen result in lower blood flow to the vaginal area, “which reduces the lubrication and can contribute to sexual pain," Gast explains. "When women fear that pain, their cortisol level (the stress hormone) goes up which inhibits oxytocin (that love hormone as well as the milk ejection hormone for breastfeeding), which makes it harder to orgasm and even relax with sex."
In addition to hormonal changes, there are sensory-related and psychological causes of a decreased sex drive, Brandi Jordan, a social worker and board certified lactation consultant, tells Romper. “Nursing isn’t necessarily easy; you’re doing it many times throughout a 24 hour period and it can be taxing. So for some women just having someone else touch them, even a partner they really love, can feel overwhelming during this time,” she says.
When the physical toll of nursing becomes overwhelming, one’s sex drive can be impacted as a result of extreme tiredness, Gast says. “Sleep deprivation and overall exhaustion can affect your desire to have sex," she continues, adding that “breastfeeding demands so much energy from you and when your baby is constantly needing your attention, it wipes you out. Then your partner tries to make a move, and you're just feeling tired and touched out and have no interest in sex.”
Rebecca Agi, a certified lactation consultant and founder of Best Milk LA, tells Romper that lactating parents feel “touched out” after intense breastfeeding, and can become "less responsive to [their] partner’s touch. Plus, so much of a mother’s emotional energy is focused on her newborn, often to the exclusion of others."
These issues, when combined with the emotional changes during the postpartum period, can also result in changes in self-esteem and body image. “Your breasts may be tender or sore, they may be leaking, and they may look different than what they looked like before [they had a baby],” Jordan says. And it doesn’t help that many moms struggle with the look and feel of their postpartum bodies. And when coupled with certain cultural views about nursing that can lead to shame in lactating parents, Jordan says, a breastfeeding mom can have her sex drive dip as a result.
For moms struggling with a perinatal mood and anxiety disorder, there are more ways that a lactating parent’s sex drive changes that complicate the situation even further. “Postpartum depression can feed you lies, saying you're not worthy of having sex with your partner, or your partner doesn't find you attractive etc. Don't feed into those lies. Talk to your partner about how you're feeling,” Gast says. She also wants moms to keep in mind that being on antidepressant medication can affect libido.
Jordan adds that when a lactating parent is living with a perinatal mood and anxiety disorder, breastfeeding can sometimes impact their diagnosis due to fluctuating hormones. “On an emotional level, breastfeeding can be something that is hard for some parents,” she says. Time constraints and nursing complications can create an environment where the lactating parent doesn’t feel confident in their parenting abilities or self-image, leading to trouble with sensuality.
If a lactating parent develops the belief that breasts have one purpose and that is to feed and nurture the baby, they may unwittingly make their bodies off limits to their parters, Coffee adds. “There really is a balance to be found here; breast really can be for both nutrition and physical pleasure," she says. "It’s not necessary to pause all physical interaction with your partner until breastfeeding goals are realized.” If touch makes a parent uncomfortable, then they should discuss it with their partner.
Coffee, Gast, and Jordan all say that the love hormone oxytocin, which contributes to milk let down and is also released during sex, can lead to milk spraying or squirting at moments that lactating parents may find embarrassing. As a result, lactating parents may feel differently about themselves and their body or about sex in general. So if that is a concern, it’s should be discussed so that that embarrassment can be overcome. “Pumping or nursing your baby before sex can help with this,” Gast says.
Finally, it’s important for lactating parents to know that if their sex drive is low or nowhere to be found, what they’re experiencing is typical. Whether the reasons are psychological, biological, or rooted in body image issues, they don’t have to define your sex life forever. Communicating with your partner, and taking steps to learn your postpartum body as a nursing parent, can help you feel more comfortable as you find your groove again.
If you or someone you know is experiencing depression or anxiety during pregnancy, or in the postpartum period, contact the Postpartum Health Alliance warmline at (888) 724-7240, or Postpartum Support International at (800) 944-4773. If you are thinking of harming yourself or your baby, get help right away by calling the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, or dialing 911. For more resources, you can visit Postpartum Support International.