This article was originally written by me and Aby Tobin for HiPP Organic, in our roles as their UK Relationships Expert and Pelvic Health Expert. Read this article and other expert articles on their website here.
Let’s talk about sex, baby! And why? Because it’s really really common that having a baby can have an impact on your sex life. After all, it makes total sense that the combination of postnatal bleeding, vaginal tears, c-section stiches, sleep deprivation, swollen breasts, and emotional overwhelm means that sex is pretty far off most people’s minds!
Psychosexual Therapist, Elinor and Pelvic Health Physiotherapist, Aby are here to help you muddle through this somewhat complicated period of your life.
“The first thing I want to make clear is how wide the spectrum is,” says Aby. “There is no normal or expected timeline. We have varying sex drives, it holds different weight within relationships, and we have different births to recover from. Regardless of all that, the timeline is yours and yours alone. Some mums are really keen to reengage with that aspect of their relationship; others are touched out, mentally overwhelmed and it is not a priority. For many there is a fear about how it will feel, for them and their partner.”
Elinor agrees: “Women who have had a tear or traumatic birth may worry about the pain of penetrative sex. Others may feel that their body image has taken a hit, and it can be hard to feel sexy in a body which feels or looks different to your old shape. Although these feelings are very common, it can have a negative impact on your relationship if you don’t find a way to share these feelings with your partner and let them into your worries.”
The good news is that there are lots of things you can do to help support yourself and create a sex life for you and your partner which works for you, without pressure, fear or anxiety. Here are Elinor’s top tips to help you get back on track together:
1. Communicate, communicate, communicate.
It might feel like you and your partner share a lot of the parenting duties, or you might be doing a lot of things by yourself. Either way, you will have both had quite different experiences, and talking to each other is going to be really important to help you each gain understanding and empathy for the other.
If you’ve been the one recovering from birth, perhaps you can share your worries about sex and what you might need to feel less anxious. If you are the non-birth partner, then you might have a different relationship with your partner’s body compared to previously, and you might be anxious about causing pain or discomfort. The more the two of you can talk about any worries you have before you even start being sexual again, the more chance there is that future sexual experiences will be positive.
2. Tiny touches
If it’s been a while since you had sex, then expecting yourself to go from 0-60 isn’t always realistic. Instead, start to think about building up to sex through tiny touches. This is all about breaking down the physical barrier between the two of you, so you start to feel closer and more intimate.
Tiny touches could include sitting close to each other on the sofa, holding hands when you walk, or stroking your partners back when you pass each other in the kitchen. See if you can find 5 small ways to touch your partner each day without them noticing what you’re doing. By playing this game with each other, you are making some intention effort to connect which can be very meaningful in the longer term.
3. Focusing on sensations
Prior to kids, you might have had a very adventurous sex life, or maybe you liked the same sort of sex every time. Maybe you knew exactly what you and your partner liked. However it might be a good opportunity now to press the reset button together, and learn to explore each other’s bodies again.
As a Psychosexual Therapist, I often suggest Sensate Focus exercises, which aim to reduce anxiety by encouraging couples to focus on sensation and touch rather than a particular goal. Agree on any no-go zones first, if you’re not ready to have your breasts, stomach or genitals touched.
Starting slowly, just focus on touching each other with your fingers, just stroking and caressing each other for 5 minutes each and noticing the sensations of touching or being touched: is your partner’s skin warm, firm, soft, dry, smooth, or cool? Once your 10 minutes of touching time is up, have a big hug and cuddle up under a rug or duvet together. This is great way to reconnect with touch and intimacy, without pressure and expectation.
4. You don’t have to go ‘all the way’
We often feel that penetrative sex is the only ‘real’ sex but postnatally it can be important to only have penetrative sex when you’re ready to, especially if you’ve had a traumatic birth or required stitches. There are lots of different ways to enjoy pleasure and connection together, so building trust through sexual play first can be important before you feel ready to have penetration again.
You may wish to explore penetration when you’re by yourself at first, for instance in the bath, so that you can safely get to know your body and what does, and doesn’t, feel good. When you do feel ready to have sex, you will then be in a better position to guide your partner towards what works best for you.
If you are producing milk then your body is in a hormonal state similar to peri menopause. The low oestrogen levels can cause vaginal dryness, meaning your vagina’s natural lubrication system is turned down. A lack of lubrication can cause friction, which is painful. To counter this, we want to get arousal levels high, so lots of foreplay before anything enters.
We can also get a helping hand from lube in a bottle, just remember to go water based if relying on condoms for contraception, as many women are still fertile even when breastfeeding and oil-based lubricants can affect condom effectiveness. Make sure you choose a non-scented version to avoid the risk of irritating your sensitive parts.
6. Be kind to yourself.
You’re doing an amazing job already, by looking after your baby and focusing on their needs everyday. You are having to constantly tune in to every squeak, cry, and gurgle to try and work out what they need from you. It can feel really overwhelming to also have to think about your relationship, and feelings of guilt and pressure are very common as a result.
So try to be kind to yourself – you’re doing a brilliant job. This stage doesn’t last forever and it does get easier, I promise! If thinking about sex right now just feels like it’s going to tip you over the edge, then let your partner know. Perhaps they can find other ways to support you emotionally right now instead, so that you’re feeling more connected to them. We often find that when we feel emotionally close to our partner, then we are more able to think about physical closeness too.
Preparing yourself physically for sex
From a physical standpoint, Aby has pointers to help you prepare your body for a return to intimacy.
Vaginal birth mums
For obvious reasons those who have had a vaginal birth have a concern around pain and sensation. From 6-8 weeks when tears are fully closed, scab free with no infection we can start scar massage. The aim is to desensitise and reduce tension in the scar tissue. For scar massage demo have a look on my Instagram.
Now the physical effects from the massage are important, but also you are re engaging the area before anyone else touches it. You can increase or decrease pressure based on what you’re feeling. This means that by the time anyone else is entering that area you know what feels ok. Then by doing pelvic floor rehab you will start to build up the muscle tone in the vaginal walls, this will improve the sensation for you and your partner.
C Section mums
Scar massage is also important for you too. Scar tissue in your tummy can cause tension further down into the vagina, this is usually a deeper achier discomfort during sex. Massaging your C section scar is a key part of your physical recovery and can again be started from 6-8 weeks when the wound is fully closed, scab free with no infection. For scar massage demo have a look on my Instagram.
Different from a vaginal birth, you are more likely to have tightness in your pelvic floor. Practicing a full lift and release of the pelvic floor, along with deep breathing and stretches will help make the experience pleasurable.
For those significantly injured by birth…
Unfortunately, some of us come out of birth with more serious trauma, both physically and mentally, that is going to keep penetrative sex off limits for a longer period. If you find you are missing sex, but it isn’t an option yet then explore other forms of intimacy. It doesn’t have to be penetrative sex; intimacy is about closeness. Ladies, we are fortunate to have external erectile tissue in the clitoris, so you can still climax. And hey, maybe all you need is a good uninterrupted cuddle on the sofa to feel that connection.