Sex. You had an awkward conversation about it with your mom with when you were 12. You formed your own opinions as a young adult. And, if you’re reading this article with any personal interest, you’ve had some recent first-hand experience.
Now you’re pregnant. Today, sex may seem more inviting than ever or as appealing as taking out the trash — and that may change again tomorrow. For most couples, sex will follow a meandering course of ups and downs through these nine months (and beyond). How these changes affect your relationship is entirely in your hands and, no matter what you’ve heard from your weary parent-friends, the results may be better than you imagine.
The good news
“I think the majority of women enjoy sex even more when they’re pregnant,” says Toronto midwife Andrea Lennox. “Pregnant women have a significant increase in their natural discharge, and that lubrication can make sex quite wonderful. A lot of couples will also say that it’s liberating to not have to worry about birth control, maybe for the first time in their lives.”
When it comes to the emotional changes during pregnancy, David McKenzie, a certified sex therapist with a doctorate in human sexuality in Langley, BC, also sees great benefits. “In men, I’ve noticed an increase in tenderness and concern for their partners. It’s not that they were uncaring or unloving before, but a different level of nurturing will often come forth and draw a couple even closer.”
Diana and Brad Paulson,* of Burnaby, BC, found that to be true as they navigated the romantic challenges of their first pregnancy. “We managed to maintain a healthy sex life almost right up until the week that we delivered,” Brad says. “While we weren’t nearly as spontaneous as before, we still enjoyed it and each other.”
*Names changed by request
First trimester: Sex or sleep?
A woman’s body is undergoing tremendous change while it grows a baby. At this stage, morning sickness, exhaustion and tender breasts are common, and a couple’s sex life can take a significant, though usually temporary, nosedive.
“I tell women in the first trimester, this is your body changing really quickly,” Lennox says. “You are tired and you have to respect that. Go to bed at eight o’clock if you need to and don’t put pressure on yourself. Find time in the morning or make a date in the afternoon when you do have the energy for sex.”
Like many couples, the Paulsons found Diana’s first-trimester all-day nausea necessitated an abrupt hiatus in their active pre-pregnancy sex life.
“There was a sudden drop-off,” Brad explains. “My libido dropped off, too, in response to her feeling sick all the time. I would seldom initiate sex because I wouldn’t know how she was feeling.”
“It definitely became more important to communicate,” Diana says. “I would feel bad if we couldn’t have sex because I was feeling sick or tired, not only for my sake, but I felt I was depriving Brad.”
Throughout these challenges, they focused on simply caring for each other so they wouldn’t become disconnected. “He would rub my back and, even though it wasn’t a sexual thing, it made me feel loved,” Diana explains.
Second trimester: You go, girl!
After the first trimester, many moms-to-be are past any nausea or sickness, have gained back some energy and are feeling pretty great. Pregnancy hormones can ramp up a woman’s sex drive, according to Lennox, which can be a huge turn-on for their partners. A woman may also find increased sensitivity, which allows her to reach orgasm more easily and more often than before. They don’t call the second trimester the “golden stage” of pregnancy for nothing!
Of course, not every woman is so lucky. Just as hormones can increase libido, the opposite can be true; some women notice a decreasing desire for sex as the pregnancy progresses. Especially for couples who already have children, sex can seem like another task on the to-do list of a very busy day. Another issue that may crop up is body image. While many women feel confident and sexy with their baby bump, others have a tough time embracing their new figure — especially without clothes on. Combined with the emotional highs and lows caused by surging hormones, this self-consciousness can create misunderstandings in the bedroom.
“Sometimes I felt like my husband wasn’t initiating sex as much as he used to, and I wondered if it was about the baby or about me looking different,” Diana says. “We tried to address issues like this right away. I found out that he was overly concerned about how I was feeling and not wanting to overtire me.”
“It’s important for the woman to get her partner familiar with her body and how it’s changing from the very beginning,” says McKenzie, suggesting that your partner will feel more comfortable and involved if you encourage him to rub lotion on your belly, feel the baby kick or put his hands on your growing breasts. “A couple has to work hard to make sure that no one is feeling unattractive, unloved or left out. This helps both partners come to a place of celebrating the new life and the beautiful changes in her body.”
Third trimester: Three’s company
A woman’s energy and libido may dip again, but when it comes to sex at this stage, the biggest challenge is usually finding positions that are comfortable for her.
“It was important for us to discuss that what felt good had changed, and that different styles, positions or rhythms might work better,” Diana explains. “We experimented a lot.”?Spooning, or any position with the man behind, is often more comfortable at this point in pregnancy.
Some men also feel more reluctant about sex near the end of pregnancy. “Men can feel a psychological barrier, when the woman is quite large and it’s clear there’s an actual baby in there,” says Lennox. “They might feel they shouldn’t be having sex because they could hurt the baby or their partner, but there’s no medical basis for that.”
Brad says that a key to their success in the third trimester was developing a great sense of humour. “Between having to manoeuvre around the belly size, find new positions that felt good, and deal with the occasional excess fluid, sex became an entertaining adventure sometimes,” he laughs.
Talk about it
“The basis of it all is openness and talking,” says McKenzie, stressing that most of these issues are just temporary and resolve with honest, open communication and a little creativity.
Diana couldn’t agree more: “We felt that it was always important to discuss the whys behind the emotions we were feeling.” She has some advice: “If you’re not interested in sex, then explain it’s the nausea or the hormones; or for men, that you’re worried about hurting the baby or tiring out mom — that it’s not a lack of love or desire.?With hormones running rampant and fears and concerns for both, it’s easy for people to imagine things and blow them all out of proportion.”
“You need to keep it lighthearted, too,” adds Brad. “If the sex drive is just gone, do not take it personally. Keep talking to one another and loving one another. There is a light at the end of the tunnel, as long as you work together as a team to get there.”
“Understand that you’re not alone,” Lennox says, reminding couples that they need to be patient with each other when such enormous physical and emotional changes are taking place in their lives. “Pretty much every other pregnant couple is going through the same thing. And it’s not forever.”
Is sex always safe?
It’s safe to have sex throughout a normal pregnancy. However, there are medical exceptions, including continued spotting or bleeding, or conditions such as placenta previa. In these cases, your caregiver will advise you not to have sex for a period of time, or until after the delivery of your baby. Also, couples should refrain from sex if the woman’s water has broken.
Embrace the alternatives
Staying connected to your partner is vital, but it will become clear during pregnancy that sex and intimacy aren’t one and the same.
Diana and Brad Paulson, of Burnaby, BC, worked hard to stay intimate when sex wasn’t an inviting option. “Just touching, kissing, perhaps oral or manual stimulation, taking a bath together or spending time doing something we enjoyed together helped us feel loved when it couldn’t be physical,” she says. Diana remembers going shopping for maternity clothes with Brad, when she was feeling uncertain about her body, and his encouragement made her feel beautiful. Couples might maintain a strong connection by going out for dinner, taking a walk, cuddling on the couch, organizing the baby’s room together or just setting aside one-on-one time.
Back in the saddle
Toronto midwife Andrea Lennox says that it’s safe to resume sex once the new mom has stopped bleeding. But even if you can, will you want to?
“I actually had a new mom asking about sex a week after delivery,” says Lennox, “so yes, there are women out there who want to have sex again after they’ve had their babies!”
But for many women, the answer — for the first couple of months anyway — is no. Faced with round-the-clock feedings, sleep deprivation, healing from the birth and the hormonal changes in her body, a new mom may have a tough time getting in the mood. Also, says Lennox, “many women struggle with self-image after the birth. It can be a really challenging time.”
It’s a challenge for men, too. “There’s a fair bit of fluid and blood following a birth and some men can be turned off by that and feel uncomfortable having sex for a while afterward,” says Lennox.
Then there’s breastfeeding. “Some men think it’s the most glorious thing in the world, and other men wonder, When do I get them back?” Lennox says. She explains to men: “Don’t worry, you’ll be invited back. Just be patient, respectful and slow about it.”
Lennox reassures couples that what they’re feeling is normal. Some reticence at this stage is very common and will pass. “There are other ways besides intercourse to satisfy each other. Try to relax about it and enjoy all the other things going on in your life.”
When you do decide to get back into the swing of things, “go slow and use lots of lubrication,” Lennox suggests. If negative feelings about sex or physical discomfort continue, talk to your doctor, or see a therapist, to find a solution.
Stay in touch
Subscribe to Today's Parent's daily newsletter for our best parenting news, tips, essays and recipes.