Science Explains Why New Moms Have Low Libidos
The dry spell parents of newborns endure has nothing to do with love or intimacy, and everything to do with biology.
The leading cause of death to a parent’s sex life is the arrival of a baby, but to new fathers, this does not always make sense. Their partners are experiencing a rush of oxytocin and intense feelings of love and connection towards the baby, so why wouldn’t that spill over onto them in the form of affection and intimacy? Newborn babies sleep up to 20 hours a day, so it’s not an issue of having enough time to do it. Plus, women tend to experience an increased libido during pregnancy but have the physical obstacle of their bellies. So now that it’s out of the way, why wouldn’t new moms want to have sex just as much, if not more? Right?
This line of thinking could not be more wrong, says OB-GYN and founder of Mommy Matters, Dr. Tara Shirazian. “Everyone is different and I suppose it’s possible for some new mothers to feel more sexual, but I haven’t seen that in my patients,” says Shirazian. The reason for this is for women to enjoy sex, they need estrogen, a hormone that plummets as soon as women give birth, and stays down as long as women breastfeed.
The good news for dads is that this is not personal, but a biological response. First step, don’t take their lack of interest in sex personally. Thatt can do more harm than good. Then, work on getting sexually close to them in this new era of your relationship. How? We spoke to Dr. Shirazian about how to better understand this dry spell and how to navigate this time of limbo with a spouse.
New mothers tend to experience a lot of feelings of love and connection. Why does this not translate into the physical act of sex after pregnancy?
Emotions run high because all of the feelings are new and sort of overwhelming in the beginning. There’s love, intimacy, but there’s also anxiety. It’s a heightened emotional state. Men probably feel a little left out a bit because the mother has this really strong connection with her newborn, but it has nothing to do with the sentiment of feeling like you want to love another. It really is biological.
When the baby is born, the placenta comes out and there is almost an immediate drop in estrogen. Then there is a rise in a hormone called prolactin, which stimulates breastfeeding and helps women feed their newborns. Prolactin drives down estrogen levels and when you have less estrogen, women are not only less sexually inclined, they also have more vaginal dryness, more pain, less lubrication, which is why we’ll usually recommend vaginal estrogen for women postpartum who are breastfeeding.
What if moms are not breastfeeding, does this hormonal lag still occur?
Even if they’re not breastfeeding, because the return of her natural cycle takes a little time after delivery, it will take a good 60 days to return to normal menstrual and ovulatory cycles and get back to a normal rhythm with their hormones again. These days, most women opt to breastfeed and continue to breastfeed, so it takes longer. That may be bad news for the fathers because that keeps prolactin levels high and estrogen low. Sometimes women breastfeed for a year, and in those cases, it will get a little better, but the estrogen levels won’t be like they were before until she stops.
Some women report being aroused by the physical sensation of breastfeeding, but hormonally it sounds like the opposite effect?
It’s definitely the opposite and it’s biological. If a woman just had one baby, her body can’t go through that again right away, especially if she’s breastfeeding. It naturally works like that so you can’t have another baby immediately. The lowered libido and increased dryness just serves to further protect the individual woman from getting pregnant too soon so that her first offspring can be taken care of. It all makes sense.
But it seems like pregnancy seems to have the opposite effect and increases women’s libido.
Pregnancy is a high-estrogen state so many women will feel a surge in libido. They might feel uncomfortable for other reasons. Women have higher estrogen, but that competes with other things, like being more tired or not being able to breathe as well. She has a big massive uterus and it makes getting through the day more exhausting. But as far as libido goes, more often than not, it goes up.
Does that make the drop off after birth seem more severe?
Probably, I think that’s fair.
Are there any differences between the first and second child in terms of how it affects sex and intimacy?
There is a difference, but not from a biological standpoint. For women, sex has to do with a lot of other factors, like anxiety for example. If she doesn’t know what to expect, doesn’t know how to take care of a newborn, and is tired and stressed, she’s probably not going to be that excited to be sexually active. That’s what separates the first kid from the second, because once you have one, you kind of know what’s involved, so the other factors that affect sex and intimacy are more in play.
So what can couples do to get around this? Or is it just a matter of waiting it out?
Women can use vaginal estrogen or lubrication of some kind — creams, suppositories, KY jelly, Astroglide, all those water-based lubricants. Also just making sure you carve out time in your day as a couple so you’re not rushed or uncomfortable. Those are all things you can do to help.
Are there ways that fathers can build intimacy during this time without making it about sex?
The more the mother brings the partner into that connection with the baby as a team unit, instead of just thinking that she and the baby are against the world, the more it can be an intimate experience for the couple. Men can help with breastfeeding just by keeping her company. A lot of men might feel standoffish being there during breastfeeding, or even with birth itself, but breastfeeding is one of those things where men think they can’t be involved. But they can be by just sitting there. They can be a part of that moment and those experiences and when they do, mothers may be more inclined towards other types of intimacy with the partner, like sex. Share in as many moments and experiences as possible, that’s what I would recommend.
Other than hormones, are there any social or cultural factors that contribute to new moms feeling less sexual?
Birth has a lot of cultural implications. In some cultures, women are not even supposed to leave the house for the first 45 days or so. It can be very isolating, sometimes people don’t come around to visit, and it’s reinforced that it’s all about her and the baby. It’s all about recognizing that. Men can be a part of all of that, but couples need to understand that this is what it is, and this is what is involved, and both people have to make themselves available.
Is body shaming ever a factor? If so, what can dads do for moms to help moms feel sexy in their postpartum bodies?
It’s about feeling comfortable in your changing body and knowing it will probably change back. Give her time to do things for herself that makes her feel good postpartum, like shower, fix her hair, put on some nicer clothes, sleep, workout, and other small things. Having a little time to do those things goes a long way. But for mothers, part of that has to do with empowering people around them to help. Fathers need to know they can take care of that baby and that frees up the woman to have extra time for herself.
So the drop off in sex is not an intimacy issue at all. And in reality, the solution is pretty simple — just help and wait. Is that the case?
Yes. Remember these are normal changes, and you can get around that like with lube. But that doesn’t change that to feel intimacy and love you have to help and be a part of it. It’s short-term. It’s going to take a little time but not a lot. I’m not trying to paint a grim picture, but an important takeaway for the guys is that it’s not about her love for you. It’s just as her body is healing and transitioning, it’s keeping those estrogen levels low so that she can take care of the newborn more effectively. It’s not about intimacy or love.
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