Having a child not only affects the sexual desire of the woman who gives birth, but also her partner's, a new study suggests.
The results show that men (heterosexual partners) and women (same-sex partners) who are in committed relationships with a women who give birth experience highs and lows in sexual desire upon the arrival of the new baby.
Often times, these changes in sexual desire are linked to social factors, or factors related to raising a child, rather than physical changes resulting from the birth itself. For instance, the most common reasons partners gave for their low sexual desire in the post-partum period were: fatigue, stress, too little time and baby's sleeping habits. Factors such as vaginal bleeding from the mothers, and breast-feeding, ranked lower, the study found.
Previously, this same group of researchers found that social and psychological factors, and not just physical factors, play a large role in the mothers' desire for sex after childbirth.
"People typically presume that hormonal changes or, more controversially, 'messy vaginas'…explain birth mothers' lack of sexuality, and that co-parents can't wait to be sexual," said study researcher Sari van Anders, an assistant professor of psychology and women's studies at the University of Michigan. ("Co-parents" is another term the researchers use for partners).
"Our present research demonstrates that co-parents also experience variations in sexuality that relate to the very real social and relational changes that occur with having a baby," van Anders said.
Sex after childbirth
The researchers analyzed information from 114 partners — mostly men, but also some women — of women who had given birth in the past seven years. Participants answered questions about their level of sexual desire, and engagement in certain sexual activates within the first three months after the birth.
About one-third of partners said they had engaged in sexual intercourse with the birth mother within six weeks of childbirth. This finding agrees with earlier research showing that some new mothers engage in sex within six weeks of childbirth.
The study also found that about one-third of partners said they had performed oral sex on the birth mother within six weeks of childbirth.
Many doctors recommend delaying sex for four to six weeks after childbirth to allow the cervix to close, bleeding to stop and any vaginal tears to heal, according to the Mayo Clinic. "Our research suggests that individuals are engaging in a range of sexual behaviors before that," van Anders said.
In the early postpartum period (the first six weeks), the majority of partners engaged in masturbation (74 percent), or were the recipient of oral sex (58 percent), the study found. More than 80 percent reported engaging in sexual intercourse at some point within the first three months after childbirth.
An earlier study in Australia found that most mothers said they waited six to eight weeks to start having sex after childbirth.
In a previous study, that only looked at mothers, researchers found that the mother's perception of her partner's desire for sex, as well as her experiences in childbirth, influenced how soon she started having sex again.
But in the new study, these factors did not influence when partners started engaging in sexual activities. Future studies may shed light on what factors influence resumption of sexual actives for partners, van Anders said.
The study asked partners to think back in time to when their child was born, and it's possible that participants did not recall experiences correctly. On average, about 2.5 years had passed between the birth of the partner's child and the start of the new study.
Future studies should follow both mothers and their partners forward in time to confirm the results, the researchers said.
The study is published today (Aug. 1) in the Journal of Sexual Medicine.
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Rachael is a Live Science contributor, and was a former channel editor and senior writer for Live Science between 2010 and 2022. She has a master's degree in journalism from New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program. She also holds a B.S. in molecular biology and an M.S. in biology from the University of California, San Diego. Her work has appeared in Scienceline, The Washington Post and Scientific American.