Written by: Wendy, IBCLC
Sex isn’t always a topic that is talked about openly and honestly. When it comes to sex and breastfeeding, it’s a topic not talked about nearly enough! The fact is, it’s very common to experience changes in your sexual feelings, the frequency that you want to have sex, and even changes in your body that make sex more challenging.
The changes that happen during breastfeeding aren’t even all bad—it’s just that things change, and change is hard. It’s important to note that these changes happen whether you are breastfeeding or not. Just giving birth to a baby and caring for that baby can have strong impacts on your sexuality and sexual desire. Studies have found that a whopping 64% of parents experience some level of sexual challenges after giving birth.
HOW DOES BREASTFEEDING AFFECT SEX?Pregnancy, childbirth, and then breastfeeding have enormous impacts on our bodies, emotions, lifestyles, identities and relationships. All of this can impact our experience of sex and sexuality. Let’s take a closer look at each of these aspects
PHYSICAL AND HORMONE CHANGESPregnancy, followed by breastfeeding, changes our bodies in significant ways. If you experienced any vaginal tearing or prolapse during childbirth, your experience of sex may be impacted for some time. (If you are in this situation, please follow up with your healthcare provider and consider pelvic floor therapy!)
But breastfeeding also has its own effects on our sexual organs and hormonal make-up. According to a 2018 study published in BMJ Open, breastfeeding significantly increases prolactin levels and also significantly lowers estrogen levels. Together, this can lead to decreased vaginal lubrication along with pain during intercourse. Furthermore, lowered sex hormones can decrease sexual satisfaction. The study found that among the postpartum birthing parents studied, vaginal lubrication was cited as the single most prominent sexual problem.
On the flip side, breastfeeding can actually increase sexual desire in some people. This is likely due to the release of oxytocin (called the “love hormone”) during breastfeeding. Additionally, for many people, not being heavily pregnant and having one’s normal (or somewhat normal!) body back may make sex more appealing.
EMOTIONAL, LIFESTYLE, IDENTITY AND RELATIONSHIP IMPACTSIt can’t be emphasized enough that having a baby impacts us in substantial ways, and many people don’t acknowledge this as much as they should. Suddenly, our identity goes from being an independent person who can focus on our own needs and the needs of our spouses, to someone who is wholly focused on their baby.
Add in changes to your body and body image issues, sleep deprivation, and feeling “touched out” and it’s no wonder that so many people become less interested in sex. Many of us are also wrestling with worries about jobs, money, and stress about keeping our house in order. These types of stresses often cancel out any feelings of “sexy.”
There is also the fact that for most of our lives, we think of breasts as sexual objects, but when we are breastfeeding, they take on a completely different role. This can be hard for both us and our spouses to grapple with.
It’s important to mention that sometimes the emotions people feel postpartum and during breastfeeding actually make sex more palatable. People often feel more connected to their spouses after having a baby. They may feel happier than usual, and may jump at the chance for a moment of intimacy between feeding and changing diapers. Everyone is different.
HOW TO MAKE IT BETTERProbably the most important thing you can do if you are experiencing changes in your sexuality and sexual interest is remind yourself that you are 100% normal. This is such a common and understandable experience! There’s nothing wrong with you if things have shifted for you in the realm of sex. That’s just what happens when you have a baby and when you are nursing.
It can be valuable to connect to other postpartum and breastfeeding parents. Once you bring this topic up, almost every other parent will say, “Me too!” Yes, everyone will have a slightly different experience of it, but sex and sexuality change after having a baby. That’s just a fact.
After this, it’s super important to talk to your partner about how you are feeling. Just be honest with them about what you are feeling and what you need from them. Communication in and of itself can make things better. The BMJ Open study found that couples who didn’t communicate about sex were 2.2 times more likely to experience sexual problems.
DOES IT GET BETTER AFTER WEANING?Sexual changes and sexual desire usually changes in due time, and most people find that they are back to their baseline soon enough—although having older kids is its own thing, and sex continues to evolve over the course of being a parent.
Many people wonder if things get better once you wean your child. That depends on several factors. First, if you haven’t had your period back yet, weaning can cause it to come back, which usually means that some of your sexual desires become more heightened (especially during ovulation).
But you don’t have to wean completely for your hormonal make-up to change. Most people get a period back by 6 months (give or take) postpartum while breastfeeding, at which point, their hormonal landscape is a bit different and might include more sexual feelings.
Weaning doesn’t necessarily make you feel less tired, touched out or overwhelmed, though it can do that for some people. Again, just being a parent to a little one is hard, breastfeeding or not.
The bottom line here is that if you are experiencing changes or challenges in the realm of sex while you are breastfeeding, you aren’t alone, and you are normal! Make sure to share your feelings openly with your sexual partner. Reach out to your healthcare provider, a trusted lactation consultant, or a therapist if you have further questions.