A series of photos made its rounds on social media recently that had me spitting out my morning matcha. Pulled from the satirical book Porn for New Moms, they feature hot, shirtless dads with captions such as, “I’ll take the baby to the supermarket with me. You take a nap,” and “Damn! You look hot in those sweatpants!” From the number of LOLs garnered, the sentiment hit a little too close to home for many couples. Forget fresh flowers and candlelit dinners; for many new parents, folding laundry is foreplay, and sleep the ultimate of fantasies. Sex? Not so much.
“Research has demonstrated that a woman’s sexual desire tends to be lower after the birth of a new baby,” says Amy Muise, director of the Sexual Health and Relationships (SHaRe) lab and assistant professor at York University in Toronto. And it’s not just birth moms: dads, same-sex couples and parents who adopt also tend to lose their mojo post-baby. In fact, studies show that 86 percent of women and 88 percent of men report sexual problems in the postpartum period. It can be a result of physical and hormonal changes from the birth or postpartum period or simply from the stress and fatigue that comes with caring for a tiny new human, explains Muise. In other words, it’s common for one or both partners to not really be feeling it post-baby. But rest assured, your sex life isn’t gone forever. Here’s how to keep the fire burning, even when you’d rather Netflix and chill in the very literal sense.
Acknowledge your partner’s needs
Muise’s newest study, soon to be published in Archives of Sexual Behavior, found that being motivated to meet a partner’s sexual needs and being understanding about those needs are vital in maintaining a healthy relationship, especially during the transition to parenthood. “For new parents, it’s not only important to try to maintain their sexual connection, but also to understand that the sexual relationship often changes during this time,” she says. “The key message is that it’s about responsiveness—people should aim to understand their partner’s needs and acknowledge those needs.”
Of course, that doesn’t mean you have to have sex when you’re not in the mood. But it is crucial that your partner feels heard, says Winnipeg-based relationship therapist Sarah Hunter Murray. “Keep the communication lines open as much as possible. If you’re really exhausted, say, ‘I didn’t sleep last night.’ It’s important to give it that context.” Hunter Murray recently conducted a study on how men experience sexual desire in long-term relationships, and she found that rejection was something that almost all the participants described in great detail. She found that the more rejection happens, the more it hurts their self-esteem and decreases their interest in sex (they feel their partner doesn’t want them personally, as opposed to simply not wanting sex). “Try to make sure your partner knows it’s not personal. Tell him or her, ‘I miss having sex, it’s still on my mind. Why don’t we see if we can set up babysitting and the two of us spend some time together? Or maybe this weekend, when the baby’s napping, we can set aside time for us to reconnect?’” That shows you still care and the feeling is temporary.
When new parents are in the throes of babydom, it can be difficult to see past the mounds of laundry or imagine ever getting a good night’s sleep again. Sex might be the last thing on the brain. But one study on postpartum sexuality out of Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., shows some promising stats: more than 80.6 percent of couples return to pre-baby levels of sexual activity within a year.
Robin Milhausen, a sexuality and relationship researcher at the University of Guelph in Ontario, likes to reminds new parents that sex won’t always take a backseat to childrearing. “Life is long, there are always going to be busy times and new baby is just another hurdle life throws at us. We need to get over the idea that sex is going to be filled with throw-up-against-the-wall passion every time,” she says. Sneak in a quickie while baby naps, she suggests, and remember that sexual activity is not limited to intercourse alone.
Keep an open mind
Research shows that some women experience sexual desire as a result of feeling desired. As Milhausen explains, “Women don’t, as often as men, have that spontaneous, I-want-to-rip-your-clothes-off-right-now feeling. But they often experience desire that is responsive to other triggers or cues, such as a partner initiating sex. And they feel happier and more connected after sexual activity.” So while at first you may not be in the mood, keep in mind that your partner’s longing might just do the trick. “If a woman wants to show affection, feel closer to her partner, have a better night’s sleep—those motivations, might be reason enough to engage in sexual activity,” says Milhausen. She warns, however, that the motivation should be to experience something positive, such as feeling closer, rather than to avoid a negative consequence like a fight.
In Hunter Murray’s practice, she sees a lot of mothers who don’t feel desirable no matter what her partner is expressing. “Most partners will say, ‘I find you sexy.’ While I encourage them to reinforce that message, we need to feel ourselves that we’re sexy—it needs to come from an internal place,” she says. Little luxuries go a long way: treat yourself to a blowout or manicure if you can afford it. If that’s not the in the cards, even a hot bath helps. Hunter Murray recalls one new mom telling her she suddenly felt better about herself; when she asked what changed, she was told, “Instead of putting on sweatpants, I put on jeans and a t-shirt after a fresh shower—it made all the difference!”
Remember: It takes a village
Most of us have yet to meet a couple where each partner pulls his or her weight equally from day one. Middle-of-the-night feeds, countless diaper changes and endless laundry—one partner usually ends up feeling like they’re handling the bulk of responsibilities. And nothing kills desire quite like resentment. “It takes one person to warm the bottle, the other to give it to baby. The whole family works better if everyone has a role,” says Milhausen.
According to a University of Michigan study, co-parents or partners of postpartum women experience sexual highs and lows during the postpartum period just like birth mothers. However, these shifts in desire are linked to relational and social processes (feelings of intimacy, for instance, or lack of free time) rather than biological or medical factors such as pregnancy, birth or breastfeeding. Interestingly, the study also found significant differences in social support between men and women. Male partners of birth mothers often feel as if they’ve lost their main source of emotional support (mom is focused on the baby, after all), while while female partners of birth mothers are more likely to reach out to friends and better express their concerns.
Regardless of gender, sexual orientation, or how your little bundle came into this world, parenting is a huge job. Don’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it. Hunter Murray advises against finger-pointing because usually both parents are feeling exhausted and doing their best. Instead, offer positive affirmations for the good stuff (“I really appreciate that you picked up groceries”) and lay out what it is you require (“I’m really exhausted from getting up in the middle of the night, could I sleep in on Saturdays?”).
“Be forgiving and give your partner the benefit of the doubt. This isn’t the time to hold a grudge,” says Hunter Murray. Communication and patience go a long way. Sure, feeling desired might just get the juices flowing—but feeling understood can be the ultimate turn-on.