Of all the embarrassing and weird things that come with pregnancy and new motherhood, this one is the hardest to admit. I’ll just say it: Breastfeeding was a turn-on.
Like every expectant mom, I’d heard about the benefits of nursing. Most of them focused on the baby: the antibodies, the infection-fighting properties, the immune system something or other. And I knew there were benefits to mom as well: not just the convenience and the bonding, but some kind of hormonal boost that my prenatal books made sound like a drug-free high. So, I honestly thought that it was sort of normal in those early weeks—once I got past the toe-curling nipple pain—for nursing to be, well, titillating?
Yep, I got sexual gratification from nursing my newborn—and, as she grew, from a baby to a toddler. And then from baby number two as well, who, I must admit, nursed well toward her second birthday. And why not? When the latch and suckling of an otherwise demanding and relentless little person felt like the loveliest tug that travelled from my breasts to my nether regions, what exhausted and overwhelmed new mother would be in a hurry to give it up?
It took me quite a while to realize that others viewed this side effect as something akin to sexual perversion. “No,” my friends would say, bewildered and a little weirded out. “No, it doesn’t feel like that to me.” And then: “How, exactly, would you say it feels to you?”
It was hard to explain, really, except perhaps like there is a gossamer thread connecting my nipples to my uterus, my cervix, my clitoris? Connected to something nice, in any case, so that when I’d sink, exhausted, onto the couch or back into bed with a hungry baby, it didn’t take long for the suckling to release a rush of warm hormones.
To be clear, breastfeeding wasn’t a route to ecstasy, but it was a reliably pleasant experience that brought the same kind of sexual stimulation that a good mental fantasy might. It was a little bit like foreplay, except with spit-up or a diaper change at the end of it all (still the wet spot in the bed but no climax).
Still, it meant that early motherhood was, like pregnancy, a time of heightened desire. Even pumping brought some kind of stimulation, though never so much that it outweighed the sheer tedium and absurdity of being strapped to my Medela.
None of this surprises Viola Polomeno, an associate professor at the University of Ottawa's School of Nursing who specializes in perinatal sexuality and assures me that “it’s all normal” when it comes to the link between sexuality, pregnancy, birth and breastfeeding. “It’s more common than you think, and it goes with all the hormonal changes that are going on in pregnancy and childbirth, but it is taboo,” says Polomeno. “It’s rarely mentioned by clients, and even healthcare professionals don’t often acknowledge it because it’s so private.”
Polomeno believes the sexual arousal that some women feel during breastfeeding is caused by a combination of factors, including a boost from the “love hormone” oxytocin and the physical stimulation of a nursing baby. Breasts, after all, are wired for pleasure. Add in the emotional release of relaxing quietly and connecting with your baby—stolen moments in an otherwise relentless day—and it’s a perfect recipe for a physiological reward.
“There’s the physical stimulation that brings a certain contentment, the affection of holding a baby close and the continuum of pleasure in all of it,” explains Polomeno, “and it can continue by degrees to the point that it becomes a sexual experience.”
Though being turned on by breastfeeding doesn’t come up much in mommy groups, rare is the woman who can’t tell a story about her increased sex drive during pregnancy, when the rise of oxytocin can fire up a woman’s desire.
“One woman in five will discover orgasm for the first time during pregnancy,” says Polomeno. She doesn’t know exactly how common it is for nursing mothers to get aroused by nursing their babies, except that she is certain that it happens more than people are willing to acknowledge.
“Women aren’t sharing it or being open about it because they feel some sort of guilt or shame around it,” she says. “It’s so taboo they ask ‘Is it even possible?’”
I'm here to tell you that, yes, it is possible, though I had no idea it was quite as scandalous as some seem to think. Blessed to give birth in the age of the internet, I had looked it up somewhere, at some point, when my babies were so, um, pleasurable and was reassured to find that I wasn’t alone.
While both my daughters provoked the same response and the effect lasted throughout my years of nursing, Polomeno says that there’s really no pattern for who experiences sexual stimulation during breastfeeding, when it’s more likely to occur or how long it lasts. “It varies, so a woman might not experience it right away, in the first few days or weeks, but it might come later, when her body settles,” she says. “Some women might never experience it at all, and some might experience it earlier.”
While I was lucky enough—weird enough?—to feel more satisfied than most moms during my three years with babies attached to my boobs, in the end, weaning came as the same bittersweet relief I suspect many moms feel. Enough with the nursing bras and messy milk. Enough with the grasping toddler every time I sat down for a break. It was good while it lasted, baby, but mama needs to move on.
This article was originally published online in October 2018.