Though small and relying on lots of self-reporting, this study–which was published in The Journal of Sexual Medicine— is novel for it’s inquiry into the psychological, social factors relating to sex and not just the physical ones. Researchers talked to over 300 women who’d given birth within the last seven years about their sexual desire and activities, birth experiences, how supportive her partner was and other things like breastfeeding and the baby’s sleep habits.
Not surprisingly, psychological factors tended to play a bigger role in new-parental sex than physical ones. Social support, partner support and the baby’s sleeping habits made a bigger impact on a couple’s sex life than breastfeeding and vaginal trauma.
Other highlights include:
* 40% of women masturbated within the first few weeks postpartum.
“People have frequently assumed that women just aren’t interested in sexuality early in the postpartum period and that the sexual activity they do engage in is for the sake of their partners, but the rates of masturbation suggests that many women are feeling sexual,” said Sari van Anders, a behavioral endocrinologist at the University of Michigan and lead researcher.
* Oral sex (for him) and masturbation (for her) tended to happen sooner than intercourse and oral sex (for her). 26% of women had sexual intercourse before 6 weeks, 61% at 6 weeks and 85% by 3 months.
Our doctors tell us not to have sex for six weeks. But this set time frame for “resuming relations” is a problem for many couples for a whole bunch of reasons: six weeks can feel too long, too limiting and/or a deadline. The cultural assumption that go with this recommendation is that dad wants sex, mom doesn’t want to have sex and that sex is all about penetration. As Meredith Fein Lichtenberg points out in her excellent parsing of this study:
“Do you know how many women I meet who feel unready for sexytimes after 5 weeks and six days? Many. Too often, I find, those moms have interpreted the six-week thing as an affirmative injunction, like it’s mandatory to do it at six weeks, like by then they ‘ought to’ want to ‘by now’ because they had ‘six weeks off.’ Because their doctor said so. No. Your doctor has no idea what you like in bed, or when you like it, or how or where or why.”
* Dad’s participation in the birth did not damper the sex life of couples.
“Contrary to beliefs that a man seeing his partner in the throes of labor is a turn-off, the study found that women whose partners were in the delivery room reported stronger sexual desire post-birth,” said van Anders.
* Exhaustion, stress, body image, breast-feeding and vaginal trauma did not seem to play a role in how quickly sexual activity resumed
… but fatigue, the baby’s sleep habits and lack of time did dampen sex-drives.
What seems clear from my perspective having had a couple of kids and talked to hundred of new moms is that it’s very, very hard to generalize about sex in the first year postpartum (or ever, for that matter). What does seem to help is support, understanding and a bit of an open-mind. “I think we need to make room for thinking broadly about women’s sexuality in the postpartum period, as a part of positive lifelong sexuality but also as a positive part of the postpartum experience,” van Anders said.
Photo: Angelo González/Flickr