The following is some basic information regarding the topic of postpartum sex.
What’s normal for postpartum sex?
There is a wide-range of normal when it comes to sex, generally, and the same applies to postpartum sex. Additionally, it's not uncommon for many people to experience dramatic changes in their desire or frequency. What can make sex more difficult during this time is:
Feeling touched out (due to breast/chestfeeding, night feedings, co-sleeping, or constantly holding a fussy baby)
Feeling like you’re constantly giving to everyone (women who have birthed report this often)
Navigating a completely new body (particularly if you do not like your new body)
Change in relationship dynamics (sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse)
Sexual and personal identity shifts (e.g., now that I'm a mom I don't feel like I can wear sexy cloths)
Mental health/mood disorders (e.g., postpartum depression)
Refusing to give up on sex!
Improvement in sex life
Deeper, more intimate bond with partner outside or within sex life
Sometimes sex improves postpartum! The added strain of becoming parents can bring relationships closer if all parties are able to meet new obstacles and challenges with compassion, humour, and some creative thinking. Sometimes people use sex as a means to manage depression. And sometimes people get completely side-swiped by the unexpected stresses of parenthood. It's all completely understandable. We are human, after all.
When can I have sex again?
Usually at the 6 week follow-up with your doctor, midwife, or pelvic physiotherapist, if your genitals have healed and you're feeling good, you will be told you can have "sex" again. Unfortunately, this is sometimes interpreted by people as you should have sex now or you shouldn't have had sex before. This is also often referring to penetrative sex, but not orgasms, masturbation, oral sex, using your hands, or a vibrator, etc.
It is very common for people to not feel ready by 6 weeks postpartum. Penetration may be painful and the vulva may still be very tender. There is also a significant number of people who have given birth that will masturbate again within the first three weeks. In an interview with Dr. Emily Queenan, she recommended waiting to have penetrative sex for at least 3 weeks to allow the cervix to heal, otherwise, when you start to have sex (and what kind of sex) should be entirely up to you— and that includes if you want to have sex sooner than the 6 week mark!
When you do decide to engage in penetrative sex, it is helpful if the birthing person is in charge of the depth and speed of penetration. Whether using toys or straddling a partner, positions that enable them to be in control are usually more successful.
Is it okay to have sex while I'm breastfeeding/chestfeeding? Is it okay to have sex when my newborn is in the same room?
This is normal and people absolutely do it. Performing sexual acts on a newborn is dangerous and can be very harmful and is understandably illegal, but that is not what is being discussed here.
In Canada, if someone is reported to the Children's Aid Society (CAS) as having had sex or masturbated while breastfeeding/chestfeeding, or has had sex in the same room their newborn is sleeping, CAS is obligated to investigate and it may lead to an apprehension. This is regardless of whether or not the newborn was actively involved in the sex that was occurring. However, there is no scientific evidence to my knowledge of a causal relationship between newborns being present during sex and later psychological trauma to that child or later pedophelic acts of the adults involved. Additionally, it is arguable that removing a child from a perfectly safe, stable, home environment is potentially harmful and dangerous to that child's development. This rule may also inadvertently harm impoverished families, in particular, if the family is living in small home or bachelor apartment. Expecting postpartum abstinence due to lack of space is unreasonable.
Due to time constraints, or fussy newborns that can rarely be put down, or not having the income for a larger home, people are in a predicament: when and where can I have sex? There is nothing inherently dangerous about experiencing an orgasm in the presence of a newborn. Some people even experience orgasms from breastfeeding/chestfeeding alone, without additional genital stimulation. It's very normal to feel aroused during breastfeeding/chestfeeding and it doesn't mean you feel sexual toward your baby. If you find this idea extremely or even mildly uncomfortable, there is no reason to do! But if you do enjoy breastfeeding/chestfeeding or having sex with a partner while breastfeeding/chestfeeding, or while your child sleeps in the same room, you are not alone. Some parents stop having sex when they're newborn is present once the newborn starts to get that "knowing look" at around 6-7 months; other parents are never comfortable with the idea at any time. It's all normal.
What happened to my relationship?
The transition into parenthood can be extremely challenging. Expectations about who is going to do primary childcare/household chores might shift or be more overwhelming than anticipated. One partner might desire more sex and close physical contact than another. People might not enjoy parenthood as much as they thought they would. The birth parent may feel self conscious about the changes to their body and partners may or may not add to that stress by feeling similarly or not knowing what to say to be supportive. A partner may be jealous they were not able to be pregnant, while another partner may resent having to be the one to carry the baby and subsequent changes to the body. In polyamorous relationships, there may be more support for childcare, and additional relationship dynamic shifts related to who can date easily because they're not breastfeeding/chestfeeding or who has more energy to see non co-parenting partners.
Unless the relationship has experienced significant challenges in the past, people may be more or less skilled at coping with these changes. For many relationships, this is the first major test of the foundation of their relationships. There is no need to feel shame reaching out for help from local community resources, professional counsellors, or friends and family. If those you initially reach out to do not react with loving, compassionate, support, keep looking until you find the support you need.
During pregnancy is also a time when many people finally leave abusive relationships because they are concerned for their children's well-being. If you are uncertain of whether or not you are in an abusive relationship or situation, here is a power and control wheel you can reference regarding abusive. Here is a quiz from LoveIsRespect.org, and here is an Ontario-based organisation called the Assaulted Women's Helpline dedicated to assisting women out of abusive situations, or the national peer-support Trans Lifeline if you need to talk: 877-330-6366.
Is it hormones? Why don't I want to have sex anymore?
This is a hotly debated question in sexual health communities. The trouble with hormones is that it is uncertain how much hormones contribute to a lack of desire versus how much a lack of desire impacts hormones. In other words, if there are significant stressors in our environment (e.g., conflict in our relationship, past trauma or birth trauma, high-sugar diet, insufficient sleep) this can throw-off our hormonal balance and contribute to chronic stress and depression, which undoubtedly can have an impact on our desire to have sex.
Additionally, some medications (including anti-depressants and birth control pills) and medical conditions related to hormone functioning (like endometriosis and poly-cystic ovarian syndrome) can absolutely impact our hormones and our desire to have sex or our ability to orgasm (which if you've ever struggled with having an orgasm after years of easily orgasming, this can be a real turn-off). Sometimes this can be addressed by changing medications or to a barrier method of birth control like condoms/cervical cap/diaphragm, or by exploring herbal remedies with a naturopath or herbalist.
Finally, the postpartum period itself is a time of hormonal readjustment. Breastfeeding/chestfeeding, for example, is often associated with a lack of vaginal lubrication and it is suspected there is a hormonal link. Although hormones themselves may not be responsible for a lack of desire in this case, they can certainly cause symptoms that make sex less appealing particularly if you have trouble with artificial lubricants and are predominantly engaging in penetrative sex.
Having said that, if you are generally physically healthy and do not have any other symptoms of hormonal imbalance, are not taking medications, sleeping well, and are no longer breastfeeding/chestfeeding and still have a low desire in sex, there's a good chance there is something going on in your internal or external world that is making it difficult for you to relax enough to get into it. For example, studies have found that most cis-women (women assigned female at birth and continue to identify as women) do not experience spontaneous desire like the majority of cis-men. Cis-women have a more responsive sexual desire, meaning, it takes a longer period of time with more foreplay and getting the environment just right to allow enough relaxation to be receptive to sex. This can be very difficult during the postpartum period, though not impossible. Check-out the book section for some great reads, or contact your local sexual health counsellor/sex therapist for some guidance.
It's been so long since we've had sex, I don't know how to bring it up.
People might be excellent communicators in every other aspect of their lives, and still struggle with talking about sex. Sex is still a taboo topic for many people and it's not uncommon to not know where to begin, especially if you haven't had sex with a partner in a while. There may be feelings of embarrassment, anxiety, fear of rejection, fear of not being attractive to your partner anymore, or some other specific concern or insecurity related to your present or past experiences.
Most people have been shamed for some aspect of their sexuality at some point in their life, especially those who identify as sexual or gender minorities, including cis-women. Shame about our sexuality can easily make us feel bad or wrong for our desires or lack of desire. In order to have an effective conversation about sex we need to know our partners will hear us with empathy, compassion, and without judgement. Conversely, we need to be willing to hear our partners with the same degree of non-judgmental empathy and compassion.
When sex has been absent from a previously sexual relationship, the topic can feel tense to approach and people may be quick to defend themselves. Maintaining a defensive approach doesn't allow for the honest and vulnerable sharing necessary to reconnect. It might be helpful to set aside a time when someone else can look after children, ideally when everyone is well rested enough, and there is limited interruptions. Beginning the conversation with, "can we set aside some time to talk about sex this week?" may be a good place to start. Before you talk, consider what you value about your sex life and why it's important (or not important) for you as individuals and for your relationship.
Is it okay if I need to use Sex Toys to reach orgasm with my partner?
Absolutely! Lots of people, especially folks with a vulva/clitoris/vagina need sex toys to reach orgasm. Some studies have found that 60% of cis-women cannot orgasm without clitoral stimulation, in other words, penetration alone is simply not enough of the right kind of stuff! Toys can be a great way to explore your new body on your own or with your partner. You can also get toys designed to vibrate, stimulate your g-spot/a-spot/or p-spot, simulate oral sex, or wear remotely during sex with your partner. There is a big world of sex toys out there! Look for sex shops that are queer-friendly, sex-positive, feminist, and anti-oppressive- they always have the most knowledgeable employees and best quality products!
A few things to consider when buying sex toys: jelly toys have pthalates that can screw with your hormones (avoid them), silicone toys will last forever and can be boiled or put in the dishwasher after use (but do not use silicone lube with silicone products), glass toys will not shatter with use and easily become slick, water-based lubes are safe with all toys, and if you're going to put something in your butt make sure the base is the widest point of the toy or comes with a sturdy handle to avoid losing it in your anus (your anus doesn't have a closed cervix like the vagina).
I'm consenting to sex, but I'd rather not have sex.
Maybe you've heard someone say it, or maybe you've said it: "it's not like they pressured me, it's not sexual assault or anything, I definitely consented to sex, but I would have rather not had sex." There is a concept in sex-positive communities called enthusiastic consent. Enthusiastic consent is the idea that not only are you consenting, but you're excited about having sex! When people are not enthusiastically consenting, it could be for a number of reasons. Maybe the person who isn't excited about sex is tired and would rather sleep, but knows how important sexual intimacy is for their partner so they're willing even if they're not feeling enthusiastic about it. If that feels good for everyone, than that's definitely okay.
Sometimes people aren't initially enthusiastic about sex, but once they get into it they start to enjoy themselves. If that feels good for everyone, than that is perfectly okay. Some people are more or less open to being convinced to have sex or have their partners make an appealing proposition, while others find this pressuring and coercive. The best way to know which way your partners feel is to ask them directly: "are you open to talking about how we could make sex more appealing for you right now or later?" If your partner says no, then they're not into it. Or if they say, "I don't know," than they're probably not into being convinced in that moment, but may be open to it later, which would require another check-in for further discussion. Note: this is not the same as the old fashion idea that women who are putting up a fight are just doing that for social graces and really want it deep down. That kind of thinking very quickly leads to non-consensual sex (i.e. sexual assault).
The problem with having sex when you'd really rather not, is when it feels violating or makes you feel resentful toward your partner. This could be a sign the sex is actually not consensual and you are experiencing coercion from your partner. If you are uncertain of whether or not you are in an abusive relationship or situation, here is a power and control wheel you can reference regarding abusive. Here is a quiz from LoveIsRespect.org, and here is an Ontario-based organisation called the Assaulted Women's Helpline dedicated to assisting women out of abusive situations, or the national peer-support Trans Lifeline if you need to talk: 877-330-6366..
Other times people consent to sex they're not enthusiastic about because they're afraid if they don't eventually have sex with their partner, their partner will leave them or cheat on them. This is addressed in the next section.
Will my partner leave me if we don't have sex?
The postpartum period is a very vulnerable time for most relationships. Feeling overtired and disconnected from your relationships does happen, especially if sex is an important means of connection for one or more people in the relationship. It may be helpful to explore this question with another question: do you really want to be with someone who will leave you because you can't or don't want to have sex for a little while?
If the answer is, "yes! I really value sex and I'd be upset too! I just don't know how to get back into it!" then finding a good sex therapist or counsellor may be really helpful.
If your answer is, "well, no" that's okay too. You're allowed to end your relationship if your values have changed or become clearer.
If your answer is, "well, no, but we're really struggling with the lack of sex and I just don't want to yet," finding a good relationships/sex therapist may be a good idea.
That being said, sometimes partners will threaten to leave if you don't have sex with them. That is abusive and coercive. What's the difference between someone expressing their relationship needs and threatening to leave if they don't get what they want? Consider how your partner has approached the topic. Did they come to you and tell you why they value sex and why they miss having sex with you? Did they ask if you can work on it together and find a way to enjoy sex together again? If so, it sounds like they are genuinely interested in working on the relationship in a way that is collaborative and respectful of what you are going through. However, if your partner says, "if we don't start having sex again soon, I'm going to leave you" this is a threat and coercive.
If you are uncertain of whether or not you are in an abusive relationship or situation, here is a power and control wheel you can reference regarding abusive. Here is a quiz from LoveIsRespect.org, and here is an Ontario-based organisation called the Assaulted Women's Helpline dedicated to assisting women out of abusive situations, or the national peer-support Trans Lifeline if you need to talk: 877-330-6366.
What happened to my body?
For many women and trans/nonbinary folks, learning to love our bodies is a life long journey. Sometimes pregnancy and birth improve our relationship to our bodies. We learn how capable and powerful our bodies can be, or we enjoy additional curves and changes to our vulva/vagina/breast/chest sensations. For others, nothing could be further from reality.
Not feeling sexy anymore, feeling self conscious about genital stitches, milky breasts/chest, coming off and going back on hormone therapy, is more or less stressful for individuals. Thoughts like, "is my vagina ruined forever?" or previously championed feelings of body-gender disconnect may resurface. Weight gain may also be a major concern. The hormonal changes after birth can decrease metabolism and make weight loss particularly difficult.
Partners can further this distress by having their own reactions to bodily changes, or they can be a great source of comfort and reassurance. Finding the right support group, podcast, online forum, or friend to talk to can help. Finding exercise that you enjoy doing can also bring some relief, particularly if you're able to focus on how exercise feels rather than losing weight.
It's also okay if you don't want to prioritize weight loss or feeling good about your body every single day. Finding a distraction is a perfectly reasonable way to give yourself a break from the stress of body image/changes.
My vagina is numb, is that normal?
Yes and no. Some nerve damage after the birthing process, or even after a c-section, is normal and typically will correct itself. However, if the numbness doesn't go away by 3-6 months, it's definitely time to see a doctor or pelvic physiotherapist if you haven't already. This may not be an immediately solvable condition, and you may need to find non-genital means of pleasure and stimulation in the mean time, but you do not need to accept it as your new normal. If your doctor or gyno/pain specialist turns you away for whatever reason, you have every right to seek additional professional opinions.
Actually... sex is better than ever! We do so much more now!
Congratulations! Yes, sometimes the postpartum period can be the catalyst to a sex life far better than ever before. Why? Typically when people start having better sex postpartum it's because they accepted what isn't working and moved onto figuring out what does work for them. That doesn't mean people give-up on finding answers to pelvic pain or body dysmorphia, it just means that while they're looking for answers they're working with what they have here and now.
If folks have partners, partners are those who are willing to put in equal or more effort researching new ways of having sex (that often don't involve penetration), and everyone is generally flexible with when, where, and how they have sex.
When sex gets better, usually couples priorities are aligned: there is an understanding of how important (or not important) they want to make sex in the relationship, including finding ways of scheduling alone time (whether that's leaving their newborn with a relative, caregiver, or hired help). Some families schedule childcare with other families so everyone gets a date night or two a month.
There's a lot of respect in these relationships, and an understanding of not only what the relationship needs but what individuals in that relationship need (including alone time away from everyone, on occasion).
Other times things get better because relationships end. Finding out your partner will not or cannot weather the storm with you is valuable to know, or discovering new and important aspects about your sexual orientation or desires can happen, too. Big shifts in life can inspire great change. That's okay. Ending relationships, even with children, is okay.
Many relationships do survive the postpartum period, though! And parenting can deepen intimacy and bonding. Some people have described their sex becoming more loving and spiritual, while others have found kinky and playful activities to add to their repertoire. Pleasurable sex, satisfying, orgasmic sex takes practice, humour, time, effort, communication, skill, surrender, and patience.