When three's a crowd

The arrival of a new baby can make life feel as though it has turned upside down. At this time, maintaining a close physical and emotional bond with your partner can be trickier than expected. By Joanna Egan.

pdfAlso available in Health Journey 2013 Issue 2

couple and baby in bed
Life with a newborn baby can be stressful. Your daily routine changes and your priorities shift, putting pressure on your relationship. "It's important to adjust to life being different," says Bronwyn Buckley, a midwife, mother-of-two and the health promotion officer at Women's Health Queensland Wide. "When you have a new baby, there are a lot of things that can tip the boat."

After a baby arrives, most couples have less time for themselves and each other; they get less sleep; their finances tighten; and as they react to the daily stresses of parenthood, their relationship takes a backseat. An Australian study showed that in the first year after giving birth, most new mothers are less interested in sex. While some women feel this doesn't affect their relationship, for others, sexual and emotional intimacy go hand-in-hand. Many women are unprepared for the physical, emotional and social changes that occur after birth. These include:

  • Physical changes.

During childbirth, women often experience bruising, tearing or episiotomies (when the tissues between the vagina and anus are cut to aid birth). Changing hormones reduce vaginal lubrication and some women experience vaginal tightness. These factors can cause sex to be painful. As a new mother, you may be worried about experiencing pain, and your partner may be concerned about inflicting it, leading to reduced sexual desire.

  • Concerns about body image.

"Often mums worry that their partner won't find them attractive anymore," says Bronwyn. "They feel a lot of pressure to get back to normal as quickly as possible when in actual fact it takes nine months for your body to recover physically." Women may be concerned about weight gain, stretch marks, varicose veins, abdominal scars or reduced muscle tone in their vaginal area. Others may find breast changes uncomfortable – when a woman is sexually stimulated, the letdown reflex can trigger milk leakage. "Some women will also look in the mirror and may worry that their vagina looks different, or worry that their partner saw it in a different way during the birth," says Bronwyn.

  • Fatigue and exhaustion.

Caring for a newborn baby is a full-time job. Parents get less sleep, are more stressed and have less time for themselves than they used to. This can lead to changes in your sex life and ultimately, to decreased libido.

  • Shifting roles.

Your roles at home may need to be redefined. Caring for a new life may shift the way you feel about yourself and cause you to rethink who you are. "Everyone's identity is changing," says Bronwyn. "The baby is getting used to the parents; everyone is learning things for the first time; and it's a period of adjustment for everybody." Some women find it difficult to reconcile their new role as a mother with their sexual identity; others feel overwhelmed by the constant physical demands the new infant places upon them. "One minute you're a spouse, the next minute you're a mother and the next minute you're a lover," says Bronwyn. "For many women, moving from the kitchen to the bedroom to the nursery can be difficult."

  • Feeling left out.

Often parents, particularly breastfeeding mothers, develop a strong bond with their baby in the early months because of the close physical contact they share. This can cause the other parent to feel left out. "Women often get a lot of skin-to-skin contact with their baby because they're breastfeeding and there's a lot of cuddling and all those feel-good hormones circulating in their body, so they're getting their physical touch needs met by the closeness of looking after a baby," says Bronwyn. "This can be difficult for the other partner, who may feel left out."

What can I do to stay close to my partner?

Learning to communicate openly and honestly with your partner is important. Often, conflicts arise as a result of misunderstanding. Before your baby arrives, discuss issues such as: how much time you and your partner spend with each other and with the baby; how you plan to bring up your baby; and how you will manage caring for the baby, looking after the house and paid work.

  • Plan ahead

"Talking about your values and the parenting style you want for your child during pregnancy can be helpful," says Bronwyn. "You need to remember that you can't plan for everything, but coming to some agreement about practical things such as who is going to get up during the night, who is going to take care of the cooking, who will go to work and how you'll manage your finances, is worthwhile."

  • Talk to each other

Discussing what you expect from each other and how you plan to support each other during stressful times is important. "Sometimes you might just need a cuddle, or 10 minutes to yourself," says Bronwyn. "But you can't expect your partner to be a mind reader, you need to let them know what you're feeling."

  • Work together

It's easier to tackle the demands of parenthood as a team. "You're in for the long-haul, so you need to be on the same page," says Bronwyn, adding that it's important to let your partner know you appreciate them. "Make sure the person who is at work earning the money is valued equally to the person who is at home doing the caring."

  • Make time for each other:

Spend time with your partner and make sure you both get some time to yourselves. "While you're pregnant, think about who you might ask to babysit so you can have an hour or two to be as a couple," says Bronwyn. "If you can't get a babysitter, try to get the mood going at home; light some candles, put on a DVD, and while one person puts the baby down, the other can get take-away," she says. "You just have to be adaptable."

  • Make sure you both bond with the baby

"It's important for both parents to focus on creating a strong relationship with the baby," says Bronwyn. "A good way for dads to do that is to have a nice long cosy bath with the baby." You can also encourage your partner to bond with the baby by learning how to express milk, so your partner can take a turn to feed the baby. "When mothers see their partner nurturing the baby, it often makes them feel close, connected, safe and loved," says Bronwyn. "For most women these feelings are desire-enhancers."

When can we get back in the saddle?

There are no hard and fast rules about when you and your partner can resume your sexual relationship. Recent studies show that most Australian mothers wait until six weeks after their baby is born to start having vaginal sex again. Women aged under 25 tend to resume sex earlier, while women 34 and older generally wait a little longer. Most women (86 per cent) experience pain the first time they have sex after giving birth.

"It's important that partners don't pressure each other for sex," says Bronwyn. "When you're ready might be different from when your partner's ready." She suggests couples discuss their sexual needs openly and honestly with each other. "If you or your partner isn't ready for intercourse, there are other things you can do to feel physically close," she says. Sensual massage, mutual masturbation and bathing together can increase intimacy between you and ease you back into a sexual relationship. When you and your partner are physically and emotionally ready for sex, there are some things you can do to make it easier:

  • Use water-based lubrication. This can make intercourse more comfortable since women often experience vaginal dryness as a result of the hormonal changes that occur with childbirth and breastfeeding.
  • Talk to your partner. Tell them if you feel any pain or tenderness, discuss what your desire-enhancers are and find out what turns them on.
  • Have sex when you feel like it, regardless of the time of the day. To avoid being distracted, it can help to have sex when the baby is asleep.
  • If your breasts are tender, you may feel more comfortable if you have sex after you've breastfed your baby, when your breasts aren't full.

Contraception

Once you become sexually active again, you will need to consider using a safe and reliable form of contraception in order to avoid another pregnancy. Breastfeeding is not a reliable form of birth control. If you are breastfeeding, you are advised not to take the combined oral contraceptive pill (the pill), use a vaginal ring or have monthly DMPA injections as the hormones in these methods can pass into your breast milk. Therefore you should discuss other contraception options with your doctor or midwife.

Where to go for help

To speak confidentially with a Women's Health nurse or midwife, call our Health Information Line on 3216 0376 or 1800 017 676 (toll-free outside Brisbane).

For relationship counselling, phone Relationships Australia on 1300 364 277, or for information about how to overcome relationship problems, visit their website.

If you are experiencing discomfort during sex, pain, vaginal tightness or looseness, visit your GP.

Last updated: June 2013

© Women’s Health Queensland Wide Inc. This article was written by Joanna Egan and reviewed by the Women’s Health Queensland Wide editorial committee. It was published in Health Journey 2013 Issue 2.

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