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Intimacy Postpartum: 10 Common Challenges for Parents

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Written by: Dr. Tracy Dalgleish

Many couples experience significant changes in their relationship after welcoming a baby to the family. Over 67% of couples report a decline in relationship satisfaction. Intimacy often becomes the last thing on the “to-do” list.

Identifying and reflecting on challenges since welcoming a baby can offer validation for current struggles and start a dialogue for partners together.

10 Common Challenges Impacting Intimacy Postpartum

1. Increased demands as a couple

This can have a positive or negative impact on one’s intimacy. For example, one study found that this new focus on a baby can result in a form of intimacy that is more sensual than sexual1. However, for others, it may feel like they are not being cared for, nurtured, or they only talk about the baby. It can feel like a to-do list, and many couples report feeling decreased satisfaction and connection.

2. Lack of sleep and exhaustion

Many mothers report feeling “touched out,” overstimulated, and physically exhausted. When a partner has nothing left to give, it can be hard to then turn to one’s lover and give them emotional, physical or sexual energy.

3. Hormonal changes and breastfeeding

Some women will report experiencing lower desire and arousal postpartum, which can be part of the hormonal changes following birth. Women who are breastfeeding may also experience a decrease in their desire levels and their ability to have adequate lubrication for intercourse.

4. Narrowly defining intimacy with a pressure to “get back to your old sex life”

Sex is often defined as penis-in-vagina. This is a narrow definition of sex and creates pressure for sex to be a certain way. It creates the belief that if they are not having intercourse then they are not being intimate with their partner. Additionally, people often overstate the end goal of orgasms: while orgasms are pleasurable, it’s also important to consider all forms of touch and intimacy as part of the intimate relationship. Many women also feel pressure to return to their previous ways of having sex; however, this may not be what they want due to changes within themselves and their new roles.

5. Pain during intercourse

Experiencing pain and discomfort leads to decreased arousal and desire. Many women report feeling like the pain should just be something they need to learn to deal with. However, it’s important to acknowledge that pleasure is different from pain, and if someone continues to engage in something that is painful, they will begin to not desire the activity itself. If someone is experiencing pain during intercourse or orgasm, please reach out to a pelvic floor physiotherapist, as they specialize in helping women postpartum.

6. Difficult and toxic emotions

The experience of “mom-guilt” or resentment towards their partner may contribute to difficulties with intimacy. The narratives surrounding these emotions may sound like “I have to always be with my baby” or “I should be enjoying every moment of parenthood.” In addition, thoughts like “they never help out” or “I always have to do this” are indicators of getting stuck in difficult emotions related to the mental load of parenthood. The challenge? These emotions are like bricks in a backpack: it’s impossible to engage in sex with someone while wearing a backpack full of bricks.

7. Changes how you feel about yourself

A birthing partner’s body has undergone a huge change. Many women put unrealistic demands on their bodies to return to their previous shape, a pressure that often comes from media and societal messages. One’s perception and overall feeling in their body can negatively or positively impact their desire to engage in sexual intimacy.

8. Mental health difficulties

One in five mothers experience perinatal mental health disorders, including significant difficulties with depression or anxiety. Additionally, and rarely talked about, one in ten fathers will experience postpartum depression. Couples should recognize that intimacy is impacted by the overall landscape of one’s mental and physical functioning.

9. Birth trauma or difficult birth experience

Many will experience difficult birthing experiences. These experiences, or traumas, impact one’s sense of self, one’s ability to parent postpartum and connect with baby, and the overall relationship between partners.

10. Nothing really “wrong”

Many couples who show up in my office describe feeling low desire in their relationship. They don’t identify anything specific that contributes to this change, but do describe the experience of feeling blocked and lacking a drive to pursue sexual intimacy.

When it comes to the sexual relationship after having a baby, it can be oversimplified to state that one needs to “just improve their desire level.” There are multiple contributing factors that change in one’s sexual intimacy, including physical, emotional, and mental factors. Starting a conversation with your partner about the birthing and postpartum experience is one place to start. I also like to remind couples that despite what the media shares, many couples are not having “a lot of sex” during this new, busy season in their relationship.

References

  1. Stavdal, M. N., Skjaevestad, M. L. L., & Dahl, B. (2019). First-time parents’ experiences of proximity and intimacy after childbirth: A qualitative study. Sex Reprod Healthc, 20: 66-71.
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