Before I had a baby, most of the conversations I heard about sex after a baby were negative. “The last thing I want to do after pushing a human out of my vagina is let a penis back in there!” etc. This was usually as an expansion of the generally negative narrative that surrounds birth. The tearing, the stitching…. why on earth would anyone want to have sex after that? Not to mention that women aren’t meant to WANT sex. Then there is the talk about the poor men who are expected to go without it – because men NEED sex. Right?
This never sat well with me. For a start I couldn’t imagine not wanting sex. Women need sex too. It’s actually a pretty basic need for humans. Women can also get a bit aggy if they go without. This being quite the irony in my house. I expect my husband to know the reason for me being bloody awful to live with and to cure it by having sex with the person who is making his life a living hell! Poor man.
“Regular sex, in particular, regular orgasms are good for our overall health and wellbeing.“
However, after birth a woman will often feel quite different about sex. Not least because of the physical rigours of birthing a baby, especially if there was some trauma to the perineum or other difficulty but also because of the rubbish expectations we have of post natal women. The lucky ones might have a doting partner around on paternity leave for 2 weeks but that is rare. Most only have a week at best and there is the expectation we will cope with running the household as well as mother an infant without missing a beat. Compared to many traditional cultures with “confinement” or “laying-in” periods of 6 weeks where women are looked after by the wider family – no chores, just rest and feeding the baby, our typical new mum in the UK gets a pretty brutal start to motherhood.
Sex probably isn’t going to be a priority for a new mum when she is feeding a baby every 2 hours round the clock, while trying to keep on top of the shopping, cooking, cleaning while making sure she doesn’t look like she has just had a baby! The pressure we put women under is unjust and unnecessary.
Most women do not get a chance to really talk about sex after giving birth. When we are discharged from midwifery care, usually on day 10 if there are no issues, we are given the opportunity to discuss contraception which is often the last thing on our mind as we are still bleeding and leaking milk and have no idea what day it is. We are told it takes 6 weeks to heal and we can then resume sex. We have our 6 week check with the GP who will ask if you have had sex and that is often the extent of the conversation with health care professionals. Or if there is some dialogue it’s rarely positive. A friend of mine who had a particularly tough time and had quite significant birth injuries was flippantly told by a midwife she won’t have sex again for many months, if ever! Err, not helping!
As a doula, one of the reasons I am so passionate about helping women have positive birth experiences is because she will enter motherhood fit and well enough to look after her baby. It also makes sense to ensure women’s sexual health is a priority.
Regular sex, in particular, regular orgasms are good for our overall health and wellbeing. It reduces stress, boosts circulation, reduces cortisol, releases endorphins and helps fight infections by stimulating our immune system. It improves various functions within our bodies such as energising the hypothalamus gland which regulates our appetite, emotions, temperature and reproductive hormones (pretty useful when recovering from childbirth and establishing milk supply). It helps stimulate our lymphatic system and maybe most importantly it boosts oxytocin and helps us bond with our partners which amid the general chaos of having a baby might be the only time you actually connect emotionally and physically with them.
So, what is normal? Well that’s not easy to answer.
My own experience might not be typical. I felt like a goddess after giving birth! The power I felt on realising what I was capable of was very much an aphrodisiac. If not for having an episiotomy I would have had sex within a couple of weeks of birth but being wary of hurting myself and in particular infection I managed to wait about 5 weeks for penetrative sex but we were still intimate. Honestly no-one would have survived me on a 5 week sex ban! Enthusiasm did wain a little with each subsequent child but normal sex was resumed each time within 6 weeks.
Okay, I was fortunate to have easy, straightforward births but many women still do not get their mojo back for several weeks if not months. More so if she has had a less than satisfactory birth.
“Suggest your partner do other loving things rather than sex like running a bubble bath for you to relax in while he pops baby in the sling for a while. He can give you a massage or make a romantic meal even if you are at the table breastfeeding through it!“
The variation of normal is huge. Generally you should be healed enough to have sex within 6 weeks. If you have had an episiotomy or a second+ degree tear it may take a bit longer to heal.
Many women are scared of the first time after having a baby. Scared it will hurt (your partner might also be worried they will hurt you). Scared it will feel different (for both you and your partner) and there is also the issue of your changed body (that baby belly doesn’t just disappear overnight!) plus the leaky boobs and generally feeling not like you did before.
No-one should be pressuring you to resume sex before you are ready. No-one is entitled to sex with you and no-one is entitled to an opinion about your sex-life. Women who have had a traumatic birth may need a lot of time and loving patience before she can even start to talk about sex. The last thing a woman who has had a disempowering birth needs is yet another person taking away her bodily autonomy.
Suggest your partner do other loving things rather than sex like running a bubble bath for you to relax in while he pops baby in the sling for a while. He can give you a massage or make a romantic meal even if you are at the table breastfeeding through it! (Don’t forget moderate drinking is fine when breastfeeding so long as you aren’t bed-sharing).
The key is to take it slowly, maybe start out with non-penetrative sex to get your confidence back without the pressure of going all the way. When you do decide to go for it, don’t forget lube!
Don’t worry if your sex drive doesn’t return right away. Nature has plans to keep your fertility at bay for a while and along with suppressing fertility, breastfeeding can lower your hormones that drive sex. (Breastfeeding is not a reliable contraceptive mind so do take the opportunity to discuss family planning with your doctor).
It does take a while for your body to recover from childbirth. After a vaginal birth you will be a bit looser but the vagina is a muscle so you can train it back into shape and having sex is a fun workout! Don’t forget the importance of your pelvic floor exercises either. Doing postnatal Pilates or Yoga will not only prevent you leaking when you sneeze but will make sex better for you.
If sex is still painful/uncomfortable after 12 weeks then see your GP. Don’t be fobbed off! Women complaining about their sex drive or sexual function are all too often dismissed. We are conditioned to think sex is not something we should expect to enjoy or demand help with if it’s not working. Sex is an important part of adult health so make sure you get some “me time” in your me time!