Sexuality after Childbirth

After the birth of a child, sex is often the very last thing on the mind of new parents.

If it’s the first child, the adjustment to the new baby, having to constantly feed, wind, nappy change and hardly ever sleep, can leave both parents, and especially mum, exhausted by the end of the day and desperately longing for some rest and sleep. Never mind anything else.

And if there are older children in the house too, the struggle to meet everyone’s needs and demands can be even more exhausting. Often, there doesn’t seem enough time, room or energy for anything romantic happening between the sheets for a long time.

And this is absolutely fine and normal in most families.

After the arrival of a child, sex changes anyway. What used to be possible spontaneously anytime, anywhere, anyhow suddenly only has little time-frames at certain times in the day in certain places in the house. And even these are not always guaranteed (a crying newborn, teething toddler or nightmare awoken child don’t seem to know about these sacred little times of the day).

Gone seem the days where there was time for clean sheets, lit candles or even music in the background. Instead there are leaking breasts, the smell of dirty nappies and at least one teething ring and a cuddly bear along in the bed with most parents. And this does take its toll, but again, this is absolutely fine and normal in most families.

As long as both partner are aware of this being a special and demanding time in their lives, where for a short while, the needs and demands of little people come before their own, and that this will also change again. And it does in most cases find back to a (slightly different), but enjoyable and satisfying sex life again.

But what if it doesn’t? What when the weeks turn into months or even years?

It can easily happen and can strain the relationship in a big way. In these cases, it is mostly the women not wanting sex as much as before (or even at all), while the men feel the need and want to be physically close and intimate with their partner again. And it often doesn’t take long until a vicious cycle of sexual tension, pressure and frustration builds up which can take its toll in many ways.

And this cycle is very hard to break as both sides have their legitimate reasons and background.

There are many reasons that can contribute towards the woman losing her libido and former need and want for sex.

Childbirth itself can have an effect on how a woman feels about herself and her sexuality. If the birth was experienced traumatic, forceful or involved a lot of medical interventions, many woman can be left feeling “wounded” and as a result feel anxious, fearful or even disconnected towards their genitalia. They can end up not seeing it as a sensual, enjoyable part of their body anymore but strongly associate their genitals with pain and fear (of losing control). And even if the birth wasn’t experienced negatively, childbirth itself literally leaves its “marks” and things can feel different for a while and it takes some time (and effort by mum) to get the pelvic floor back to its old strength again.

For many women the change of their body also affects their self esteem and sexual confidence. While it was absolutely great to show of a bump while pregnant, the bump that remains after birth suddenly doesn’t seem so cute and great anymore. And while it is necessary and important to gain weight during pregnancy (and is further needed for the time while breastfeeding the baby after the birth), it does take time until the body finds back to its old shape again, and in some respects, might never will. So for many woman, it can be difficult to accept their new body, the changes in weight, size and form, and feel confident and uninhibited about it in bed.

And the change of hormones plays a big role too. Especially breastfeeding mothers can be affected by vaginal dryness and a lowered libido for quite a long while (sometimes the entire time of breastfeeding).

But the biggest effect on libido can be the pure demands of parenthood itself. No matter how involved the father or other friends and family are, especially in the early days of parenthood, it’s the mums who are needed most and have to give more than they might receive in return.

And after a full day of giving (milk, and nappies, and comfort and love to a newborn, biscuits, juice, a game of cards and cuddles to a sibling, food and drink and clean clothes to the family, …), many woman can find themselves regarding intimacy with their partner as another thing they need to “give” and that they just do not feel able for anymore.

For men this can be a very difficult situation. Most are very understanding and in the early days of parenthood, don’t feel up to much sex themselves anyway. But after a while, their libido does return, and especially because of the craziness of parenthood, may feel a strong need to reconnect with their partner on a physical level to regain and maintain that adult relationship that doesn’t seem to have much room during daytime anymore.

And while most mums have had their fair share of cuddles and physical closeness through their children by the end of the day and might not long for it as much as they used to do from their partners, the dads often feel the extra need for this kind of intimacy in order to feel connected and reassured in their role as lover and partner.

So what to do if you find yourself in this kind of situation? The most important key to overcoming this situation (and any other sexual problem or difficulty) is being honest about it and talking about it with your partner. Sometimes just putting it into words can make it easier to understand for both sides and may make it easier for both to deal with, in short and in long term.

For a man it is important to hear and find out (and to be reassured) that their partners lack of libido hasn’t to do with the fact that she has lost sexual interest in him as a person, but far more in sex in general. And for the woman it can be important to get her partners reassurance that he still finds her attractive and sexy no matter what is going on in life at the moment.

The second key to this problem is to acknowledge that despite the craziness of parenthood and the demands of little people and responsibilities of having them, mum and dad are still two independent people with own needs and wants that have a right to be met, too. Of course, in the early days, these often need to be put aside, but there comes a time when mum and dad can claim some more time and space for themselves again (and are often surprised at how willing and uncomplicated their kids accept this and go along with it). For this to happen, mum and dad will have to create some space for themselves and might need to cut back on something else for it. It is very important that the parents not only talk about it (“wouldn’t it be great to have a weekend without kids somewhere”) but also make it happen.

And the last important key to this problem is accepting that things do change and need some time, and for some perhaps more than others.

The more you beat yourself up about it and problemise it, the bigger the pressure (and in return the frustration) can become. Losing your libido after childbirth is rather common and most women go through it, some longer and some shorter than others. Talking to friends about it can help to see that you and your partner are not the only ones going through this crisis, as every mum has a story to share. And seeking professional advice and support from a counsellor can be very beneficial, too. Becoming a parent is a huge milestone in every person’s life and besides the joy and love, can also bring up other emotions, insecurities and issues (often linked to our past or our relationship with our own parents), that can negatively influence our everyday (sex) life. Talking to a counsellor or psychotherapist (either as a couple or individually) can help to understand your feelings and help to find ways of dealing with this situation in a more satisfying and less frustrating way.

Relighting the spark

At the beginning of a relationship couples are mostly drawn to each other in a very strong way, enjoying each other’s company and sharing an exciting and pleasurable intimacy and sexuality.

Everything is new and exciting, feelings are fresh and there is seldom a problem in finding time and space for each other.

But for many couples this changes after a while. In long term relationships the initial flame and spark that was once there can become a bit suffocated by the demands of everyday life.

To some extent, this is perfectly normal and part of being in a commuted long term- relationship. While at the beginning all that matters is being with each other, over time, other everyday life matters become more and more important too, and need their space and time as well.

Ideally, there is a good balance of both: special time for the couple just with each other and time and space for everything else that matters and needs either individual or joint attentions or energy.

But we don’t live in an ideal world, do we?

After a busy week at work, deadlines that need to be met, worries of unpaid bills, commitments to family and friends, many couples just long for the end of the day, exhausting into bed without any intentions other than sleep.

Or because everyday life is in such a rut, work from 9 – 7, kids home from school at 4, football at 5, dinner at 8, intimacy and sexuality also find a similar slot, maybe Sunday mornings at 10 (when mum takes the kids), making it foreseeable, planned and maybe even boring.

So what can couples do to relight the spark in the bedroom and be physically drawn to each other again, even after many years of being together and maybe living a very busy and demanding every day life?

The first step is just recognising what is actually going on and when and how sexuality is lived in the relationship. Have both partners lost a bit of their initial spark or is it more the one than the other? Has sexuality and intimacy become a rut that only happens in the same way at the same time all the time, because there doesn’t seem to be any other time and space for it?

Has one or the other partner (or both) lost sexual interest in the other? Have other circumstances (for example childbirth, illness, etc..) taken an effect on the desire for sexuality?

As soon as the effects and causes are recognised and identified it actually only takes a little work to make some changes.

The biggest problem is that over time, sexuality and intimacy are less and less prioritised in a couple’s life. While at the beginning, it might have played a very big role and had a high priority, after a while, other things just become more and more important. And again, this is absolutely normal and natural, too. But sometimes intimacy and sexuality can fall further and further down the line of priorities, maybe even to the end of the list. And maybe this should be reconsidered.

Time and space for sexuality play an important role, and often there just doesn’t seem any left for it, especially not in families with young kids. But time and space are also just a question of priorities.

Couples who find that they don’t have any time for each other or feel that their sexuality is suffocated by the demands of everyday life could ask themselves, how much priority they actually give their sexuality compared to other things. If there is always time for aunt Mary to call for tea on a Sunday afternoon, always time for neighbours kids to come and play at the house at the weekends, always time for a football match or a soap opera, why shouldn’t there also be time for intimacy? And if there isn’t, then maybe some priorities could be reconsidered, for example the kids playing at the neighbours for a change, aunt Mary going to town for her tea, TV programmes being recorded…

Another thing that can be helpful to relight the spark is to break the rut in which sexuality normally takes place. In long term relationships this is mostly in the evening time, in the bedroom, when both partners are prone to be worn out and tired.

But intimacy and sexuality can take place anywhere that is private and is not exclusive to the evening time. By doing things differently, unexpectedly or “out of the box”, things may light up a bit more and get more exciting.

Giving sexuality and intimacy more space doesn’t only mean having to give it more physical space or places to do it, but also giving it more space in the mind, too.

When sexuality is less and less prioritised, we also pay our own sexuality less and less attention.

By creating some new space in the mind, allowing oneself to think about sexuality more, broadening the horizons, maybe getting interested in new things, things might get more exciting and different, too.

Over time, things do change in every relationship, and it is part of a very normal and healthy process. But relationships are on-going work and need on-going care and attention, sexuality and intimacy being a part of it.

By identifying what priorities sexuality and intimacy have become in a relationship over time and re-prioritising certain things, the initial fire that drew to people together can be relighted and kept burning for a very long time.

Relationships and Intimacy in old age

When it comes to relationships and intimacy, there is no time when things are too late or not appropriate anymore. The way we share intimacy and live our relationships may change, but there is no reason why we shouldn’t carry on sharing our lives or ourselves with someone we love and appreciate.

For elderly people who outlive their previous partner, a new relationship is often the last thing they want for themselves or think they should be allowed to have.

After many years of being with someone, the grief for the beloved can be overwhelming and it can take a long time until the biggest hurt and lonesomeness is overcome. But having loved a previous husband or wife doesn’t necessarily mean that there can never be a new love or special friendship in future life.

Many bereaved people may fear that they are betraying their previous partner when committing to a new relationship, but that doesn’t have to hold true. A new relationship doesn’t mean that the former is forgotten or not appreciated anymore, it might just open a new – and different- space in the heart for someone else too.

The way we form relationships in later stages of our life can be very different to times before. Where beforehand physical attraction, joint dreams and aspirations for life as well as sexuality might have played a bigger role, in later life, common interests, friendship and companionship can be the more important factors for two people finding together.

The way we share and live intimacy and sexuality changes to a great extent too. The focus isn’t so much on performance and satisfaction anymore, but far more on being close and feeling comfortable with each other.

Every couple defines itself, what sexuality means for them, so there is no right or wrong, or things that need to happen or are not allowed to happen anymore. Whatever goes and feels right can be good and satisfying for two people..

There is no reason why elderly people shouldn’t enjoy the physical pleasures of each other, to the extend they are capable and comfortable with.

Finding a new partner or a very special friend after a long time of lonesomeness or after bereaving a previous partner can bring a whole new quality of life.

Many elderly people find new motivation to do things, might develop mew interests with the new partner, and might even feel “fresh wind” and rejuvenation in their lives.