Both parents experience highs and lows in sexuality after childbirth

Partners of new mothers often experience shifts in sexuality, and these shifts can be unrelated to biological or medical factors pertaining to childbirth, according to a University of Michigan study.

The findings, which are published in a recent issue of The Journal of Sexual Medicine, expand current understanding of postpartum sexuality.

Research on postpartum sexuality has typically focused on female reproductive biology in birth mothers—for example, how hormonal changes that accompany pregnancy, birth and breastfeeding affect sexual desire, or how birth-related interventions affect sexual activity. Few studies have looked at sexuality in the partners of women after childbirth, even though it may be important for postpartum women’s perceptions of their own sexuality.

“Our research demonstrates that, like birth mothers, fathers and co-mothers experience sexual highs and lows during the postpartum,” said lead author Sari van Anders, U-M assistant professor of psychology and women’s studies.

Van Anders and her colleagues examine the sexuality among 114 partners (95 men, 18 women and 1 unspecified) of postpartum women. They completed a retrospective online questionnaire about their sexual activity and experiences during the three months following their youngest child’s birth.

The researchers found that partners encounter shifts in sexuality, just as birth mothers do. The changes that they experienced were linked to relational and social processes, instead of biological or medical factors, similar to the authors’ recent findings with birth mothers themselves.

High sexual desire in co-parents at this time was influenced not only by sexual interest, but also feelings of intimacy. Low desire was influenced not by partner disinterest or breastfeeding status (as more typically assumed), but by fatigue, stress and the amount of available time, said van Anders, whose research interests include intimacy, hormones, health and gender/sex.

The study also found significant differences in social support between men and women. Co-parent women may be better able to navigate challenges following their child’s birth by reaching out to friends and by being more expressive of their concerns to the birth mother. In contrast, male co-parents of birth mothers may feel that they have lost their only source of emotional support as their partner focuses her attention on the baby.

So what should new parents do to increase the likelihood of changing desires?

“We can only speculate, but it seems that social and partner support may contribute to relational success and positive sexual experiences during this time,” van Anders said.

Researchers said these findings can help health professionals in counseling new parents, especially birth mothers but also parents together.

The study’s other co-authors include Lauren Hipp, a former psychology undergraduate student, and Lisa Kane Low, an assistant professor of women’s studies and nursing.


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