Sexuality During and After Pregnancy

Pregnancy and the transition into parenthood is a rollercoaster of change for most couples. There is the painting of the nursery, buying bibs, pacifiers, and countless “onesies,” financial planning, coping with anxiety and excitement, and reading every baby book ever published. And, if you’re like most couples, you’ve probably noticed some changes occurring in the sex and intimacy department.

How Does Pregnancy Impact Sex Specifically?

A fair number of studies have focused on sexuality during and after pregnancy. And although these individual studies can teach us a lot, after years of researching a certain topic we start to wonder: What trends are being noticed? And what larger messages can we take away from this research?

In a new study published in “The Journal of Sex Research,” Drs. Sofia Jawed-Wesel and Emily Sevick reviewed and synthesized over 20 years of research focusing on sex during pregnancy and/or the year after childbirth to help understand what we really know about sexual behaviors during this time. Their review consisted of 56 studies that spanned multiple countries including Austria, Canada, China, Germany, the USA, Pakistan, Portugal and Taiwan.

Generally speaking and across studies, the researchers determined that the frequency of vaginal intercourse tended to decrease over the course of pregnancy. Specifically, sexual frequency dropped between pre-conception and the first trimester, remained somewhat steady, and then more drastically decreased again between the second and third trimester.

Interestingly, although several of the studies documented decreases in vaginal intercourse, there were no significant changes noted in the frequency of other sexual activities over the course of pregnancy, including of oral sex, anal sex, masturbation, kissing and fondling/petting.

The one exception?

It seems that pregnant women are more likely to give than receive. Pregnant women giving oral sex to their male partners was documented at significantly higher rates than women reporting receiving oral sex from their partners.

Why Does Sexual Frequency Change?

There are likely several reasons that sexual activity changes during pregnancy. Buttwo reasons stand out in particular:

1. Fears & Misconceptions About Sex During Pregnancy

The researchers found that across studies, changes in sexual activity are often related to fears and misconceptions about possible negative consequences to the baby. Despite sexual activity being a safe activity for the vast majority of pregnant women, fear of miscarriage, fear of harming the fetus, fear of preterm labour and fear of infection were frequently described as reasons to avoid, or limit sexual activity by women and their partners.

However, just because women and their partners might have fears about engaging in sexual intercourse due to these reasons, it does not necessarily mean they do not continue feel sexual desire. Researchers of one study included in the review interviewed Austrian women about their experience of desire during pregnancy. They found that some women did in fact feel desire to have sex but their worries outweighed their sexual feelings. This can be a particularly frustrating experience—having sexual desire but not feeling comfortable acting upon those needs.

2. Feeling Sexy During Pregnancy

A psychological issue that comes up for many couples during pregnancy is how sexual and attractive the pregnant woman feels in her changing body. In western cultures, sexuality and motherhood have often operated in isolation. Women are seen as sexual up until they are mothers and it can be difficult to continue feeling sexual while pregnant or once taking on a motherhood role.

Then, after childbirth, women’s body parts that used to be sexualized (like breasts, vaginas) become more functional. And, particularly for new moms, who are constantly holding, cuddling, and feeding their baby, additional physical touch from their partner can feel less exciting and, for some, even feel like a chore.

What About After The Baby? Will My Sex Life Come Back?

Okay, pregnancy is impacting our sexual activity and behaviours. What happens after the baby comes? Will our sex life ever come back?

As a general practice, health professionals suggest that women wait around 6 weeks after giving birth to resume having vaginal sex. On average, the research shows that women tend to follow this timeline, and by 12 weeks 78-90% of women report resuming vaginal intercourse.

When couples reported engaging in sexual behavior before 12 weeks, it tended to be women giving her male partner oral sex.

But it’s not just the physical safety or avoiding sexual pain that prevents new parents from engaging in vaginal intercourse. Over pain, discomfort and other pregnancy and childbirth complications, the biggest factor found to get in the way of sex after baby? Fatigue! (Which probably comes as no surprise to any current parents reading this.)

It’s important to note that sex and intimacy come back into relationships because of our conscious effort and energy, not just because time passes. In fact, in therapy I’ve seen the difficulties that can happen when couples take a back seat approach to intimacy, and let more and more time pass—almost “forgetting” about sex.

As difficult as it can be to find time or energy to connect with our partner with a little one (two, or more) asking to be held, fed and entertained, research shows it is well worth it. Scheduling quality (if not quantity) time to spend together, getting a babysitter (even just for an hour or two, if not a whole evening), or at least passing out on the same couch holding hands after the baby finally goes to bed are all ways to focus on, and embrace, intimacy until things return to (somewhat) normal.

Conclusions

Always take the advice of your health care professional, particularly if you have a higher-risk pregnancy. But generally speaking, sex during pregnancy is considered to be a safe practice. As long as sexual activity feels good and is wanted, enjoy it!

However, it is important to acknowledge that changes in sexual frequency during this transition are inevitable. Try not to get too discouraged that you’re not having sex as often as you did before. It’s completely normal and it will come back if you give it time and attention.

In the meantime, consider trying different sexual activities (more oral sex, caressing and heavy petting), new or different positions that accommodate a growing belly (like the woman on her hands and knees, rear entry position and spooning), and trust that sexual frequencies and activities will most likely resume to pre-pregnancy levels within a year.

That is, until you’re planning for your next little one!

References

Jawed-Wessel, S. & Sevick, E. (2017). The impact of pregnancy and childbirth on sexual behaviors: A systematic review. The Journal of Sex Research, doi: 10.1080/00224499.2016.1274715

Sarah Hunter Murray