Bridie Allan has a Bachelor of Psychology, a Masters Degree in Mental Health and is currently completing her Masters in Sexology.
There’s a strange pressure after giving birth to return to having sex- as if you haven’t just introduced a whole new person into the world. Medically speaking, most women are cleared to get back into the sack, so to speak, 6-8 weeks postpartum. But let’s be real, for many women, it takes a lot longer. A large number of women report a low sex drive for months after giving birth, if not an aversion to sex completely.
A large number of women report a low sex drive for months after giving birth, if not an aversion to sex completely.
Studies have shown that the average return to sex is closer to 3-6 months, and even then 12 months isn’t out of the ordinary.
The journey of returning to sex, is unique for all women. For some, it may be a smooth and natural transition, while for others it may be more complex and lengthy. This is understandable, considering the huge physical and emotional changes that have occurred throughout your transition from maiden to mother.
For women who are hesitant about returning to sex (in all it’s glorious forms), the concerns are wide and varied. For some it is the fear of pain – both previously experienced and ongoing, while for others their concerns may be centered on how their vulva looks and/or functions post-birth. For others again, it may stem from their perception of what it means to be a mother, and how sex fit into this ideal. The possibilities are endless and all incredibly valid.
Reconnecting with your partner sexually after birth is exciting and important, but for most couples it takes work.
So let’s discuss the how:
One: Communicate- This is the best place to start. If you feel nervous, chances are that your partner might too. If you are worried about it causing you pain, chances are that your partner might be worried about that as well. Open communication, especially when you are navigating a new space, helps to re-establish connection and intimacy. Its important to be vocal, as you find your feet. Direct them to what feels good, and don’t hesitate to let them know when something doesn’t. Ideally, these conversations will begin outside of the bedroom. Discuss what you are worried about, what you are looking forward to and set expectations about that will ensure you will both feel comfortable. For example: ‘I don’t feel ready for vaginal sex tonight, but I would like to be naked with you, and touch you’. These conversations can be a little uncomfortable if you’re not use to them, especially if they require you to admit to feeling a bit unattractive or unsure of yourself (so normal), but having these candid conversations, as uncomfortable as they are, is important. Conversation is a pillar of intimacy, and a place where you can begin to rebuild safety and trust in each other.
A lot of the time we guess how our partner is feeling without ever actually checking in with them. And when it comes to sexual intimacy, this is a real mood killer. Saying things like ‘stop, I don’t want to do this anymore’ without any explanation can leave your person feeling unsure and worried about how to approach the topic with you again. Whereas ‘Stop, this doesn’t feel right to me. I’m feeling really anxious and can’t enjoy what’s happening while I feel this way’, opens up a conversation. It might also mean being explicit about where you do and don’t want to be touched, or setting times to explore sexual touch, depending on what you like. For some, who are finding the possibility of sex anxiety provoking, having explicit conversations and setting boundaries can take away the anxiety of having sexual intimacy sprung on you. Or, you could like the surprise of intimate touch throughout the day, where the buildup of anticipation is helpful to comfort and arousal. These are the types of conversations to have.
It is also important to find time to talk about something other than the baby. Be intentional about having these other conversations, cuddling and having time that is just for the two of you. These moments are separate to sex. Wanting touch and wanting sex are two different things.
Wanting touch and wanting sex are two different things.
Two: Go slow. Sex doesn’t begin and end with penetration. It actually starts with touch. ‘Sensate Focus’ is an approach used for women post-partum that helps to rebuild physical intimacy with a partner. Taking penetration off the table, it focuses on the sense of touch; temperature, pressure and texture. It’s about sensuality, not sex. Setting aside time to just explore this body of yours which has undergone a few changes and figuring out what feels good for you now. To use this technique, you communication non-verbally (without words), responding with your body to tell your partner how it feels and what you enjoy. More importantly, this does not need to lead to anything. It also has the lovely bonus of allowing you and your partner to have time together, where your partner is able to show you the way they feel about your body, and you are able to figure out what you like without pressure. This is outer play, different to foreplay which preludes to more. Outerplay can begin and end with casual exploration.
Three: Stick to oral sex (if you want) until you feel ready for more. Sex is not something you owe another person, ever. It is something you do with someone because you want to. There is a lot of guilt for not ‘providing a partner with sex’, a mindset that often makes women, in particular, jump back into penetrative sex well before they are ready. So I’ll say it again, you don’t owe anyone sex. Taking your time, building back up slowly, communicating with each other will mean its mutual (and hopefully your eventual orgasm will be too). For some people, oral sex is a fantastic way to enjoy sex without the commitment to penetration.
Four: Use lube. Estrogen is responsible for vaginal lubrication. Breastfeeding suppresses the amount of estrogen in the body, which for some women leads to dryness. Its temporary, but not terribly comfortable. A nice water-based lube is an easy solution to this problem (and) just a solid addition to the pantry.
Five: Relax. This one seems both self-explanatory and also somehow difficult. Especially if you’re anxious about sex. In order for our muscles to stretch and expand naturally during sex, we need to be relaxed. Anxiety keeps those babies tense. For women experiencing Vaginismus or Genito-Pelvic-Pain disorder, taking penetration off the table, reconnecting through touch, conversation and play can help create comfort and safety.
Six: Pick your position and keep talking. There’s some research that suggests that being on top or on the side are positions worth trying postpartum, as they allow control of the speed, depth and angle of the penetration. Go slow, see what feels good for you and see if you can find your rhythm. Talking as you go and figuring out what works and what doesn’t (because there will absolutely be things that don’t), is important. Throwing back to number one, making sure that you both don’t hold the expectation that everything will just work how it use to, is important.
The journey back to intimacy is unique and varies widely. Be patient, be kind (to yourself and each other), have realistic expectations, keep talking, and with time you will find your way back. Things might look slightly different to how they use to, but sometimes different is better.
Additional resources to consult:
– A psychologist, counsellor or sex therapist– if you are noticing significant anxiety, it might not just be about trying to re-establish sexual intimacy. It may be worth seek additional support, especially if you find a therapist who will conduct Sensate Focus with you.
Pelvic floor physio – these guys are brilliant. They are phenomenal at not only regular pelvic health, but pain management and sexual wellness.
Sex toys – external vibrators etc can be incorporated into Sensate focus play
Sex aids – for people who are introducing penetration gradually, there are wonderful creations like the OhNutCo, that allows penetration (penis, dildo or otherwise) with a buffer