It’s an understatement to say that being pregnant adds a whole new dimension to a relationship. Needs and desires develop and grow as fast as your belly. Supporting each other through all those changes and challenges can bring partners closer together. And then having a baby changes everything… including sex.
There can be a lot of pressure to bounce back postpartum, both physically and sexually. But it’s more realistic—even adaptive—not to resume having sex as much as before.
Some couples might worry that a lack of sex after baby will take a toll on their relationship—especially since a having less sex before having kids might be an indication that something could be awry. But given the overwhelming lack of sleep and amount of fatigue involved in recovering, feeding your baby, adjusting to being parents, plus trying to avoid causing pain while your body heals, it can be seriously difficult to get in the mood.
The reality is that making and birthing a baby is such a transformative physical and emotional experience that it’s bound to affect your sex life with your partner after birth. A recent study indicates that even when you have a strong bond with your partner before you deliver your baby, a decline in how often you have sex after baby arrives doesn’t necessarily mean there’s something wrong with your relationship—in fact, just the opposite.
Defining a ‘healthy’ relationship
Researchers at the University of Nebraska’s Department of Psychology and Center for Brain, Biology and Behavior had a hunch that there may be something about being pregnant and becoming a parent that changes how you might typically associate your relationship quality and how often you have sex. So they set out to determine if having a healthy relationship while pregnant would predict less sex after postpartum.
To do this, they interviewed and observed changes in relationship quality and sexual frequency from pregnancy to 6 months postpartum among 159 heterosexual first-time-parent couples. The researchers measured four elements of a healthy relationship to determine the couples’ relationship quality:
- How well they cooperated in supporting each other
- How well they communicated with each other
- How well they responded to each other’s stress
- How well they demonstrated intimacy via love and affection toward each other
Turns out that when partners provided each other with emotional intimacy, mutual support, and effective communication during pregnancy, they actually did have less sex postpartum.
Although the study’s findings may help to alleviate some postpartum relationship concerns, there are a few limitations to keep in mind:
- Participation in the study was limited to heterosexual couples who self-reported their reationship quality and sexual frequency.
- Changes in sexual frequency was limited to partnered sexual activity and did not include masturbation.
- Participants were mostly middle class couples, which could indicate that, if under greater stress or financial hardship, and independent of the quality of their relationship, there could be an even greater decline in sexual frequency postpartum because of the greater need to rebalance available resources.
It’s about the trade-off in reproductive interests
Blame biology: By having less sex postpartum, you decrease the chances of getting pregnant again and avoid investing in a new baby while your current child is still so dependent, which improves your little one’s chances for survival. Additionally, the potential costs of having postpartum sex—like pain or infection—are also reduced while you are healing.
In terms of evolution, having less sex postpartum might actually reflect a normal and healthy adjustment to the new realities of life after birth and indicate a successful adaptation to parenthood. Biologically, we are hardwired for these postpartum changes in sexuality as well. During pregnancy and postpartum, neural and cognitive adaptations of brain regions involved in reward and maternal motivation and behaviors can make you less responsive to sexual stimulation—and more responsive to your baby.
Less sex after birth is normal
It’s normal for most couples to gradually have less sex during pregnancy and throughout the first year postpartum.
After birth, healing and adjustments to parenthood, it usually takes about a year to catch up to prepregnancy sexual frequency. The expectation to bounce back as quickly as possible after giving birth to sexual frequency at pre-pregnancy levels can add unnecessary stress to an already challenging time. It’s time we end the internalized bounce-back pressure—and instead, normalize having less sex postpartum.
Ahlborg T, Dahlöf LG, Hallberg LR. Quality of the intimate and sexual relationship in first‐time parents six months after delivery. Journal of Sex Research. 2005 May 1;42(2):167-74. doi:10.1080/00224490509552270
Geary DC. “Evolution of paternal investment” in The Evolutionary Psychology Handbook eds D. M. Buss. 2015. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 483–505. doi: 10.1002/9780470939376.ch16
Gregory R, Cheng H, Rupp HA, Sengelaub D, Heiman JR. Oxytocin increases VTA activation to infant and sexual stimuli in nulliparous and postpartum women. Horm. Behav. 2015. 69, 82–88. doi: 10.1016/j.yhbeh.2014.12.009
Jawed-Wessel S, Sevick E. The impact of pregnancy and childbirth on sexual behaviors: A systematic review. The Journal of Sex Research. 2017 Jun 13;54(4-5):411-23. doi:10.1080/00224499.2016.1274715
Kim P, Leckman JF, Mayes LC, Feldman R, Wang X, Swain JE. The plasticity of human maternal brain: longitudinal changes in brain anatomy during the early postpartum period. Behavioral Neuroscience. 2010 Oct;124(5):695. doi: 10.1037/a0020884
Lehtonen J, Jennions MD, Kokko H. The many costs of sex. Trends Ecol. Evol. 2012. 27, 172–178. doi: 10.1016/j.tree.2011.09.016
Litzinger S, Gordon KC. Exploring relationships among communication, sexual satisfaction, and marital satisfaction. Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy. 2005 Oct 1;31(5):409-24. doi: 10.1080/00926230591006719
Lorenz TK, Ramsdell EL, Brock RL. A close and supportive interparental bond during pregnancy predicts greater decline in sexual activity from pregnancy to postpartum: Applying an evolutionary perspective. Frontiers in Psychology. 2020 Jan 10;10:2974. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2019.02974
Mitnick DM, Heyman RE, Smith Slep AM. Changes in relationship satisfaction across the transition to parenthood: a meta-analysis. Journal of Family Psychology. 2009 Dec;23(6):848. doi:10.1037/a0017004
Muise A, Kim JJ, Impett EA, Rosen NO. Understanding when a partner is not in the mood: sexual communal strength in couples transitioning to parenthood. Arch. Sex. Behav. 2017. 46, 1993–2006. doi: 10.1007/s10508-016-0920-2
Schlagintweit HE, Bailey K, Rosen NO. A new baby in the bedroom: Frequency and severity of postpartum sexual concerns and their associations with relationship satisfaction in new parent couples. The Journal of Sexual Medicine. 2016 Oct 1;13(10):1455-65. doi: 10.1016/j.jsxm.2016.08.006