Dear MKE SEX,
I’m pregnant and am very excited to be a mom for the first time. The other night, my partner and I were on a Zoom call with my partner’s family, and his brothers were giving him a hard time about sex after the baby comes. They kept teasing him, saying he should “get it while he can” because he’ll be living in a “sex desert” after the baby’s born. It was kind of funny at first but by the end, I was pretty pissed. My partner and I have a great sex life. It was kind of rough in the first trimester because I was puking every afternoon. But since then, it’s been full steam ahead. Why would it change just because we have a baby? I mean, people have more than one baby, right? So they must keep having sex. Are they just bitter because they aren’t getting laid? Or are they right? Are we doomed to be one of those sexless couples who just “enjoy each other’s company?”
Unwilling to Be Washed Up
Thanks so much for asking about this! Lots of people have questions about sex during pregnancy and after the baby, but we are often too busy or too uncomfortable to discuss it. And like so much of human sexuality, there’s a really wide range of normal behaviors.
Many people have pregnancies which are much like yours. They don’t feel much like sex during the first trimester, but their desire returns in the second trimester. The third trimester might bring an even more heightened sexual response, or your desire could totally bottom out again. And for some folks, there’s no real noticeable change from the second trimester. As you move closer and closer to your baby’s birthday, continue to enjoy all kinds of sex and intimacy with your partner as much as you’d like.
After you give birth, there’s a definite waiting period of about six weeks (give or take) where you should avoid penetrative sex until your body has had a chance to heal from your delivery. Once you’ve gotten through that early postpartum period, you can go back to having every kind of sex as often as you’d like.
Sounds great, right? Well, there’s a caveat. A lot of people do have a decreased libido after they have a baby. As you pointed out, people have more than one kid, so it clearly doesn’t last forever. But it’s pretty common to have less interest in sex for two to six months into the postpartum period. Even eight to 10 months of reduced desire is well within the realm of normal.
There are several reasons for this. The first one is pretty obvious: fatigue. It can be exhausting to take care of a new baby. You’ve got this tiny little human who can’t do one thing for themself. Every single calorie they need to survive is produced by you—either through lactation or through the process of preparing formula/sterilizing bottles/feeding the baby. Waking them up to eat can be difficult. Getting them to sleep is another challenge. You will be absolutely occupied with figuring out how to change a diaper without eliciting genuine distress, keeping up with endless laundry, and learning what their different cries mean. Even though it might feel like all you do is sit on the couch, your brain never shuts off as you and your baby get into a rhythm.
There are also a couple of hormones responsible for this diminished desire when it’s present. The first is oxytocin, also known as the hormone of love. Oxytocin is responsible for all sorts of amazing things in the human body. It is part of the orgasm cycle. It helps get contractions going during labor. It’s vital for lactation, aiding the body in releasing the milk. We also make oxytocin when we’re enjoying the company of loved ones, eating delicious foods, and nurturing people we care about deeply. During the postpartum period, you will be flooded with oxytocin all the time as you care for your baby. It will likely be the most concentrated “dose” of oxytocin you’ve ever had in your life.
You will also be making large amounts of the hormone prolactin. The spike in prolactin production comes as soon as your placenta is out and will spike again every time you nurse your baby or pump your milk. (Prolactin literally means “produce milk.”) In general, prolactin is the hormone of satiation and all of us make it every single day. In everyday life, we make prolactin when we’ve had enough to eat, when it’s time to wake up in the morning, and after orgasm. Prolactin tells your body, “Okay, we’ve had enough” of whatever’s happening.
This means that you’ll be chockablock full of the hormone of love and the hormone of satisfaction for months, and that usually leaves very little physical need for sexual interaction from your partner. It’s not that he is no longer desirable (or that you are!). Nor is it an issue of your affection for each other. It’s just that your brain is sending out a clear message: We’ve got all we can handle right now, and we can’t really take much more. Anthropologists and evolutionary biologists agree this chemical cocktail has developed to allow for natural child spacing in humans.
So, what to do if you’re less interested after the baby? For many people, just knowing why something is happening can be helpful in riding it out. Now that you and your partner know that you might have a dip in your libido, you can be ready for it, and not take it personally. Try to communicate your feelings and be intimate in non-sexual ways so that you don’t become strangers to each other. It can be really difficult to come back from a dry spell if you’re harboring resentment or you feel out of touch. Holding hands, cuddling in front of the TV, sharing long hugs—these are all things that will help you stay connected. And whenever you do feel like being sexual in any way, let your partner know. Find a babysitter for a couple of hours or get the baby down for a nap and move quickly! These little bursts of sexual desire can really help you both feel secure in your relationship, and remind you that this postpartum time is temporary. It’s just one season of your life together. It might be difficult sometimes, but it can also be beautiful.
Want to learn more about sex, pregnancy, postpartum, anatomy, physiology, and hormones? I’ll be teaching Pregnant Pause: Sexuality in the Childbearing Year on Tuesday, September 14, at 8:30 p.m. This class will be hosted on Zoom and is free to attend. No registration needed.