Written by Kiana Reeves, Somatic Sex Educator, Full Spectrum Doula, and Foria's Chief Education Officer
This might surprise you, but sex is usually what makes babies. Interestingly enough, sex is also usually the last thing on your mind after you have a baby, partly because of the lack of time in the day, partly because of physical and biological factors, and sometimes simply because you just don’t have the emotional space.
When you spend nearly a year growing a small human, intense hours (or days) giving birth, and weeks and months healing physically from the experience, along with discovering that your body, while capable of this magnificent feat, is also somewhat unrecognizable, it’s easy to see why so many postpartum birthing parents find it hard to find intimacy again with their partner.
Sex after having a baby sometimes doesn’t even feel feasible physically. It can be intimidating re-introducing your partner to a part of your body that feels tender or different, it can feel exhausting to think about sex after a night of feedings and diaper changes – and most people don’t tell you that this can go on for years.
Many moms report having difficulty in finding their libido again, many others have pain from their birth injuries that can last years or longer. So how do we nurture ourselves and our intimate relationships without it feeling like another responsibility?
Let's start with the physical recovery
How long after you have a baby can you have sex? In our highly medicalized society, we tend to think in terms of physical healing and concrete timelines. Six weeks postpartum is the usual time when doctors in the US will tell new parents that it’s safe to start having sex again, but when you look at collective wisdom from other cultures and different times, the story of postpartum healing is different. That includes how we re-engage our sex lives.
The six-week mark aligns with the time when the uterus heals (and the surgical incision, if you had a C-section) and the wound the placenta left when it detached stops bleeding, but does that really mean you are ready to have sex again? Sex isn’t just a physical experience. It’s best when body, heart, and mind are aligned – and for a new birthing parent, that can be a hard path to navigate.
It’s common to have no sex drive after baby – even after that six-week interval, even when the cramping and post-partum bleeding and mucus stop. The truth is that healing from birth goes on long after the six-week mark. Many cultures honor the first 40 days as a time for rest – but understand that the entire first year is a time to be gentle and have extra support.
During the first six weeks your uterus is easing back to its pre-pregnancy shape and is very delicate. The ligaments supporting it have been stretched, and the uterus itself needs time to go back into position and heal from where the placenta detached. Even after 6 weeks this area can feel tender, and not ready for any kind of touch or penetration.
Also, you may be healing from other wounds of birth – incisions from surgical births, tears from vaginal births, and episiotomies all involve intense and often painful healing processes that can take months, sometimes longer to fully recover from. Scar tissue can cause a lot of pain, and can last a long time. Studies suggest that pain after birth is incredibly common. For a deep dive on painful sex and how to work with scar tissue check out our blog on Painful Sex. Physical therapy can help, as can castor oil compresses, vaginal massage, and scar tissue remediation. Consult your healthcare provider for referrals to practitioners who can help.
Since pelvic health is such a critical part of postpartum healing, and therefore your ability to enjoy sex, we consulted with Kimberly Johnson, author of “The Fourth Trimester”, holistic somatic educator and women’s health advocate, who shared her perspective on the most important tools for pelvic health & postpartum recovery.
“The most important part of pelvic healing postpartum is absolute rest. The midwife's adage, "5 days in the bed, 5 days on the bed, and 5 days around the bed," is a minimum requirement for making only the most necessary movements. Gravity acts on soft ligaments at this time, so minimizing movement will allow the bones and organs to return to their optimal sizes and placement, in turn lessening the possibility of back pain, prolapse or incontinence. The most impactful and efficient practice besides rest is vaginal steaming.
The results of a preliminary study on the effectiveness of steaming after birth (for vaginal birth, not Cesarean) showed less bleeding, less itching and less pain with stitches, as well as faster labial recovery for the group that steamed daily from day 4 to day 8 post birth. Vaginal steaming also feels good and smells good, so if birth was difficult, you have the opportunity to have a positive reparative experience as you feel the gentle, warm touch of the steam in your pelvis.”
While vaginal steaming is considered controversial in certain circles, it has been documented as a practice for healing after birth in cultures around the world. The magic of heat, water, and herbs helps to increase circulation to vaginal tissues is a time honored tradition. If steams aren’t your thing, sitz baths are a great alternative and also regularly recommended by healthcare professionals.
Hormones Hormones Hormones
While your uterus shape-shifts, your hormones are adjusting too. The placenta is responsible for many of the hormones produced during pregnancy including progesterone and estrogen, which help maintain the pregnancy and prepare the body for birth. In its absence, there’s a transition period when your body has to adjust and take over hormone production – especially if you are breastfeeding, which releases an important hormone called prolactin.
Speaking of prolactin, ever hear that myth that you won’t get pregnant if you’re breastfeeding on demand? It’s partly true – though many, many babies are born as a result of breastfeeding-as-birth-control, so don’t rely on it. But prolactin does increase milk supply – and, for most people, it also diminishes our sex drive.
This is because prolactin suppresses production of estrogen, which is an essential hormone when it comes to desire, libido, and even lubrication and supple vaginal tissues. Many people notice that there is some irritation with penetration after giving birth – even after physical healing is “complete”. This may be caused by a decrease in estrogen, similar to what happens during menopause. (There are ways to help feel better, but we’ll get to those later.)
Let’s also consider the nervous system
When the body is stressed, in survival mode, or adapting to major changes – which a new baby certainly is! – your body may perform a kind of triage, and eliminate nonessential urges.
Sex is often the first thing to fall by the wayside. Breastfeeding isn’t reliable birth control, and having babies too close together was very dangerous for most of our history as a species, so libido changes after baby make sense from an evolutionary perspective. On a primal level, eschewing sex (and not getting pregnant again too soon) means prioritizing your child’s needs – and yourself.
So perhaps the first step to a fulfilling postpartum sex life is making sure you feel as safe and nourished as possible.
In cultures around the world and throughout history, there is a traditional period of 40 days when the birthing parent is required to rest. The physical intensity of building a human, and birthing them from your body either vaginally or surgically, requires a lot of healing.
On top of that, you’re thrust into the brand-new realms of parenthood – which change your daily rhythms entirely and impact all of your eating, sleeping, and survival strategies. You’re left running on fumes of love and oxytocin. To say the least, it is hard.
In countries as varied as France, Finland, Taiwan, and many others, national governments provide free or very low-cost healthcare, generous parental leave, and post-birth support for new parents that may include home midwife visits, free baby supplies, pelvic floor therapy, and many other services that honor the historical 40-day period of rest. Elsewhere (ahem, US, we’re looking at you), we’re left on our own.
How does this relate back to sex? If you’re not supported mentally, emotionally and physically, you might not feel safe or emotionally available enough on a deep level to want to engage in partner sex. Even though sex can be incredibly nourishing, it sometimes can feel like another thing that needs your attention, or it’s just hard to muster the energy.
Being ready to engage intimately with a partner may mean that you need to be supported through sufficient sleep, nourishing foods, having enough time to rest and recover, and as little stress as possible. We know it’s hard to come by, but finding some alone time is an essential ingredient. It might sound entirely impossible, but hear us out as to why this is not a luxury – it’s actually a necessity.
Finding pleasure, when pleasure can be hard to find
Now that we’ve talked about those crucial six weeks (let’s also be clear, postpartum can really be the first few years) if you feel like your body is in a good place but your mind, heart and emotions just can’t get there, let’s talk about some ways you can reconnect to your own desire, sensuality and libido.
New parents report feeling just exhausted, of course. It’s not just the disrupted sleep and the stress of keeping a tiny human alive; we also might be completely “touched-out”. Having a little person clinging to you all day long, plus the skin-to-skin contact that’s necessary for bonding, is wonderful – but it has a way of absolutely tanking whatever libido you may have access to.
Whatever you need to do to make this happen for yourself, make sure you get to have breaks. Let your partner know that your sex life depends on it! If at all possible, take time for naps, long baths, fresh air and gentle walks, undisturbed do-nothing alone time, breathwork, and even gentle, goal-free masturbation. One of the best tools for connecting with your sensuality can simply be putting on your favorite playlist and dancing, anything that gives you the sense that your body is your own, and that pleasure is an easy to access form of nourishment.
Consider also that in the postpartum period, your libido may still be present – it’s just hiding. Many of us are used to experiencing our sex drive as coming from somewhere within us. “The mood” comes over us, and we want it now! This is called spontaneous desire. It arrives out of thin air and gets your motor running.
But there’s another kind of desire that’s very important to know about, and may be more present in the postpartum period: responsive desire, which you may not feel until you’re responding to something in your environment. This might be the way your partner touches you, a sex scene in your favorite romance movie, whatever it is – IT is inspired by a response to your environment, and you can use that to help you get the juices flowing. Erotica, a sensual massage, a sexy audiobook perhaps – this could be a good time to explore new ways to connect with your sexual self.
So maybe you’ve figured out your body needs some different things than it used to, but you’re up for exploring. The good news is that there is an infinite buffet of options, and you can pick and choose what feels good for you. Some ideas that have worked well for some folks include practicing giving without receiving, taking the pressure off of reciprocal pleasure and just gifting your partner, or receiving from your partner something that feels really good to you in the moment.
You can craft an agreement with your partner about what feels good if penetration is off the table, that can look like a request for clitoral stimulation, making out, touching each other sensually but not on the genitals. It could also look like an agreement to try very slow and well lubricated penetration with no goal other than to be with what feels good in the body.
The pressure to “have sex” can so often contribute to the resistance to wanting it, so sharing with your partner how you feel is essential, and then sharing some ideas about what would feel good for both of you. It may feel awkward, but as we ALWAYS say, in almost all the blogs we write – sex with no goal is the best kind of sex.
Lastly, let’s talk about the fact that there really is no universal timeline for how to re-enter the sex world after having a baby. It should be when YOU feel ready, with zero pressure. There are plenty of ways to enjoy intimacy without penetration too, if intercourse still isn’t quite working for you.
Oral sex, making out, being patient with yourself and with your partner and knowing that your desire will come back with time is so important! And it might be clunky, it might look different, it might feel different, your body might respond differently – and that is all OK. You’re doing such an important job – make sure to be kind to yourself, and you’ll get there. Promise. It just might take some time, patience, and good care.
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