Jessica Walsh is coming up on a two-year anniversary, but she's not celebrating. It's been nearly two years since she and her husband last had sex, since before their only child was born.
"I've felt exhausted, stressed, and probably a little bit depressed," Walsh, who lives on Vancouver Island and asked for her name to be changed, told HuffPost Canada. "I felt like whenever I did have free time, I wanted to spend it sleeping or showering or zoning out on my phone. I still don't find I have much of a libido. I still really prefer sleep."
It's not surprising that a couple's sex life is affected by having kids — after all, discussions about bowel movements combined with intense sleep deprivation don't exactly make for a feel-good time. Not to mention the physical recovery that goes along with major abdominal surgery or pushing a watermelon from your loins.
For some couples, sex can become almost, if not entirely, nonexistent once baby arrives. Ironic, since that's what started this whole business off in the first place.
"There are many challenges new parents face that might affect their sexual lives," Dr. Natalie Rosen, clinical psychologist and associate professor of psychology at Dalhousie University in Halifax, told HuffPost Canada.
Sexual functioning remains lower even a year postpartum
"Fatigue, physical recovery of the birth mother, navigating their changing roles and responsibilities (including division of child care) and less time alone together as a couple may all play a role," Rosen said, adding that research shows that breastfeeding has been linked to reduced arousal and greater pain during sex for new moms in the first few months after birth.
Rosen says that over the course of the first year postpartum, sexual functioning — which includes things like desire, arousal, orgasm, and pain — tends to go back up, but at 12 months postpartum it is still lower on average than pre-pregnancy.
"In fact, over 90 per cent of new parents report that they have started having sex again at three months postpartum, but almost 50 per cent of new fathers and about 35 per cent of new mothers report still feeling sexually dissatisfied at six months post-baby," she said.
Walsh and her husband had a decent sex life before their son was born, averaging a few times per week, she said. The couple also has an open relationship, and sees other partners somewhat regularly.
But, the nausea and vomiting, pelvic pain from pubic symphysis dysfunction and the abdominal separation Walsh all experienced during pregnancy made sexual activity extremely uncomfortable from about six months into her pregnancy onwards.
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"We still had some intimacy in late pregnancy, but we're approaching the two-year anniversary of the last time we had intercourse," she said.
Walsh also experienced vestibulodynia (pain in the vulvar area with penetration) before pregnancy, which became much, much worse in the early postpartum period, she said.
"I had a speculum exam around three months postpartum and it was by far more painful than any I've had in the past."
Breastfeeding doesn't help
Between breastfeeding and pumping during her little one's first year, Walsh found her nipples were "destroyed."
"They were bruised, cracked, and bleeding for the nine months when baby latched directly, and the bruising lasted until I stopped pumping," she said. "Breasts and nipples are an important part of my sexuality, so having them out of commission made me less keen, and my husband couldn't promise to remember not to touch them, so it was completely off the table."
In her research of sexual problems during pregnancy and postpartum, Rosen and her colleagues surveyed over 250 new parent couples with a baby aged three to 12 months. They found that more than 90 per cent of both moms and dads reported many sexual concerns during this period, many of which were often similar.
Parents often have the same concerns
This research on sex after baby led Rosen to launch a social media initiative called #postbabyhankypanky — which aims to help normalize postpartum sexual concerns and open the lines of communication both between partners, as well as between health care providers and new parents.
"Of the top five concerns for moms and dads, both were concerned about reduced frequency and body image concerns for moms," Rosen said. "Moms were also concerned about her physical recovery and the impact of child care on time for sexual activity. Dads were more concerned about differences in desire for sex, where the dad desired more sex than mom."
While what's considered a "typical" or "healthy" sex life varies from couple to couple, Rosen says the key is whether or not one or both partners is distressed, worried, or bothered by what they see as negative changes to their sex lives.
"For some, maintaining a sex life is part of how they still connect as a couple, separate from now being parents. For others, it might be less important as they focus on their new role as parents. For others still, it might be completely off the table for a while, because of the mother's physical healing after childbirth.
"Both parents' sexual needs are important — and those sexual needs include both the need to have sex and the need NOT to have sex."
If one or both partners are distressed about changes to their sex life, or if they find it is causing a lot of conflict in the relationship, they should consider seeking professional help, Rosen said. A qualified therapist with some expertise in sex and couples therapy is a great place to start, she added.
Walsh and her partner try to make cuddle dates a regular thing as a way of maintaining their connection.
"It seems like a lot of pressure to jump straight into intercourse after so long, so we're trying to build up slowly with less pressure," she said.
"I think having a baby can bring conflict into any relationship, because both new parents are sleep deprived and stressed, and won't always agree about the best approach to solving any particular challenge," Walsh said. "I think there's this perception that most of it is about physical recovery, but I think the emotional stress is a major part of things too."
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