For couples that can’t keep their hands off each other, the recovery period after one partner gives birth can feel like torture. The one to two months it takes for C-section or vaginal birth wounds to heal are a biological cock block. But many endure it on the expectation that, as relationship psychologist Galena Rhoades puts it, “On that day, we’re going to have sex and it’s going to be just like it was before the pregnancy.”
But these couples are in for a surprise. First of all, not all of them will be ready for sex after their doctor gives them the physiological all clear, no matter how active they were before delivery. The partner who gave birth “may still be feeling very vulnerable physically” for some time, said Carolyn Cowan, an academic who, alongside her husband Phil, researches couples’ transitions to parenthood. And of course some births are harder and some people heal faster than others.
Even if they are ready to have sex, though, they’ll quickly find that the experience is just not the same as it was before. “Assuming you can jump right back into your previous sex life,” said couples therapy researcher Brian Doss, “is a mistake.” Unfortunately, Rhoades points out, not many couples know much about the changes, physical and psychological, that could complicate their sex lives post-pregnancy — and they tend not to be great at talking through them as they arise. So Fatherly reached out to a slew of sex and relationships experts to share some of the most important and trying shifts in sex after childbirth that they feel don’t get enough attention.
There will be pain. Although this varies based on how delivery went, people who’ve given birth vaginally will have scar tissue for some time thereafter, and may have short-term tears around the perineum, all the way down to the anus as well. Not even to mention the potential rectal tears, hemorrhoids, and constipation. The cervix is easily irritated for a spell as well. Anyone who’s had vaginal reconstructive surgery may have had their muscles tightened a bit too much. And hormonal changes can lead to less natural lubrication in the vagina. All of which can lead to a not insignificant amount of pain for the first few weeks or months of post-pregnancy sex “Therefore,” said Doss, “it’s important that couples openly communicate about what feels good versus what still hurts” throughout this period. And always have some good lube to hand.
Pain aside, it’ll just feel different. Vaginal birth stretches out the canal’s walls, leaving a female-bodied individual looser and less elastic for at least some time thereafter. Pregnancy and birth can also just move around one’s organs, like lowering the cervix. “Things look different, feel different,” said psychotherapist and parenting expert Dana Dorfman. “That would impact certain sensations for both parties.” That doesn’t necessarily mean things will feel worse or lesser, said sex therapist Stephanie Buehler. But it does mean old, tried and true positions may no longer work for one or the other party, or both. “Couples may need to experiment with different positions and even vibrating toys to find the right approach for pleasure” now, added Buehler.
Prepare for a new female orgasm. Pregnancy also leads to changes in the hormonal balance of many female-bodied individuals’ pelvic floors, notes Buehler. This can lead to a temporary shift in the quality of their orgasmic contractions and the accompanying sensations. Again, this isn’t a better or worse situation. It’s just something strange to be aware of, and not to worry about.
Breasts may no longer be sexual. If one partner chooses to breastfeed, or even if not, if their breasts are ready to do so post-pregnancy, they can get pretty tender. This tenderness and new life-sustaining function can quickly desexualize what used to be a key erogenous zone, said Carolyn Cowan. This, Buehler and Dorfman both noted, can lead to strange feelings for the lactating individual’s partners. They can feel possessive, even jealous of their own infant, which can put a real strain on sex. It’s important to voice these feelings, or find some other way of working through them, to avoid unnecessary tension and to process the loss of an erotic stimulus.
Things could get a little, well, milky. On a lighter, but still often unexpected side, when breasts do come into play in sex after a pregnancy, they have a habit of leaking milk during stimulation or orgasm. “Sometimes that’s just an unexpected … happening,” said Dorfman. But it’s one that’s pretty easy to work around if handled with humor, knowledge, and openness.
The facts around fertility are a little tricky. Although it may take a couple of months for a female-bodied individual to get their period again, longer in some cases, more often than not they can ovulate beforehand. So another pregnancy is still a very real possibility. However breastfeeding releases hormones that reduce the chance of conception, said female health expert Donnica Moore. To wit, fertility may not work exactly as you’d expect right after a pregnancy, so if you don’t want to have another child right away, keep minding your birth control.
Image issues can take their toll. “The single most important thing that doesn’t get talked about,” said Doss, “is that many women are uncomfortable with their bodies after birth, especially after a first child.” Stretch marks, gained weight, and loose skin, all of it can really deal a blow to the delivering partner’s self-esteem or confidence, and that can put as much of a damper on the pleasure, personal and mutual, of physical intimacy as physical pain can. Their partners can also feel intimated by these changes in their bodies, said Dorfman, “in awe of its ability to create life and its capacity to endure pain, trauma, and change.” And the psychological sensation of getting jiggy with a life-generating miracle machine of flesh is different as well.
None of these changes, to reiterate, are inherently good or bad. They’re just different. Some of them may lead to more pleasure and some of them may lead to less. But it takes communication and openness to navigate them, to reconfigure yourself into a new era of your sexual life with a post-pregnancy partner. “It’s imperative that couples talk about what their expectations are,” said Rhoades, as well as to know what’s coming, and talk through it all when it comes. But as long as you set aside the time and make the effort, the sex may not be the same, but it can still be great.