The Joys and Challenges of Sex During Pregnancy and Parenthood

Americans are marrying and having children later in life. Today, many couples get pregnant and have children when one or both are over 40. They face sexual issues that, in previous generations, only younger people experienced. In addition, young parents may turn to older friends and relatives for advice about sex during pregnancy and parenthood, but few people know more than mythology about this major life and sexual transition.

From the positive pregnancy test to weaning an infant typically takes up to two years. This period involves big relationship changes, some wonderful, others challenging. Unfortunately, few pregnancy guides address the sexual issues of pregnancy and new parenthood in sufficient depth. That’s why sex educators Anne Semans and Cathy Winks surveyed 700 women about sex during and after pregnancy for their book Sexy Mamas.

How Sex Changes During Pregnancy & Partenthood

The conventional wisdom holds that women’s libidos decrease during the first trimester because of the enormous emotional shift into pregnancy and because of morning sickness, which may last much of the day. Libido rebounds during the second trimester, only to fall again during the third because of the fatigue and the awkwardness of having such a big belly.

But Semans and Winks found that pregnant women’s feelings about sex vary tremendously. “Some experienced a sexual awakening,” Semans explains. “Others felt turned off.”

Men may also experience libido changes during the wife’s pregnancy. Swedish researchers studied 112 pregnant couples. Some of the men loved sex with a pregnant wife, while others lost interest, especially during the third trimester.

One commonly reported benefit of pregnancy was better orgasms. Many pregnant women reported the most intense orgasms of their lives. Some women who had never had orgasms had them. And many said it was easier to come while pregnant.

Some people avoid sex during pregnancy for fear of harming the fetus. Relax. Even enthusiastic intercourse does not harm the baby.

Another reason expectant parents avoid sex is fear that orgasmic muscle contractions might trigger premature labor. But a study of 596 women shows that late-pregnancy orgasms were associated with decreased risk of prematurity. The same goes for vibrators. Assuming a normal pregnancy, vibrators are safe.

However, some pregnancy complications warrant abstinence: placenta previa, multiple fetuses, serious uterine irritability, and high risk of prematurity.

Many baby books say couples can resume lovemaking a few weeks after a normal vaginal delivery without episiotomy, and later with episiotomy or C-section. However, until the baby sleeps through the night, most new parents feel too exhausted for sex.  Most infants don’t sleep through the night until 12 weeks at the earliest, so don’t expect much sex until then.

It often takes longer for the woman to regain her pre-pregnancy libido. One reason is possible pain around the vagina, which can last up to several months. Another is nursing. Postpartum, levels of two hormones rise, prolactin and oxytocin. “Both dampen libido,” Winks explains. “Some women don’t regain their pre-pregnancy libidos until they wean.”

Couples must also come to terms with breastfeeding. Some women fear their partners will be turned off by huge breasts dripping milk. Meanwhile, some men consider breast milk a turn-on.

A third reason new moms retreat from sex is the cultural perception that motherhood isn’t sexy. “Motherhood has a lot to do with self-sacrifice,” Winks explains. “Sex is the opposite of that, so many women—and some men—view it as an indulgence and desexualize themselves.”

Even if you’re not having genital sex for a while, work to maintain a sensual connection. Kiss, hug, cuddle, and trade massages. Sex may be on hold, but most new parents find nonsexual affection reassuring as they adjust to being parents.

To maintain your sexual relationship as parents, make it a priority. With a child, impulsiveness and spontaneity disappear. Everything must be planned, including sex. “Make sex dates,” Winks advises. “Once or twice a month, have your child spend the night elsewhere, and enjoy a romantic evening together. Work out a regular trade with another family. Trading sleep-overs can be a godsend for parents’ sex lives.”

If sexual issues persist after weaning, consider sex therapy. To find a sex therapist near you, visit the American Association of Sex Educators, Counselors, and Therapists, the Society for Sex Therapy and Research, or the American Board of Sexology.

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