By: Stephanie Pappas, LiveScience Senior Writer
Published: 06/30/2012 11:47 AM EDT on LiveScience
Starting up sex again after the birth of a child can be a fraught issue for new parents. Now, a new study finds that much of what drives women's desire in the postpartum period are not physical factors, but psychological ones.
In many cases, social factors such as spousal support and the baby's sleeping habits play a larger role in new moms' interest in sex than physical factors like birth trauma, the research found. Women also begin feeling desire and engaging in sex sooner than the six-week waiting period that most doctors recommend.
"One interesting thing is that women performed oral sex on their partners and engaged in masturbation earlier than they received oral sex or engaged in intercourse, said study researcher Sari van Anders, a behavioral endocrinologist at the University of Michigan. "People have frequently assumed that women just aren't interested in sexuality early in the postpartum period and that the sexual activity they do engage in is for the sake of their partners, but the rates of masturbation suggests that many women are feeling sexual." [6 Gender Myths, Busted]
The new baby period is a time of little sleep and healing from childbirth, two factors not conducive to a rambunctious sex life. But studies have shown that new parenthood doesn't cool the sex drive for long. Research suggests that desire returns to prepregnancy levels within about three to four weeks, though most couples don't resume vaginal intercourse until week seven or eight.
Previous studies have mostly focused on the physical trauma of labor and delivery as well as post-baby hormonal factors to explain the postpartum sex drive. But there's more to sex than biology, van Anders told LiveScience. She and her colleagues wanted to take a look at social factors, too.
The researchers recruited 304 women who had given birth in the last seven years to reflect on their postpartum experiences in a series of online questionnaires. All of the women had a romantic partner during the first three months of their baby's life. They answered questions about their sexual desires, their sexual activities, their partner's supportiveness, their birth experience and other factors, like breast-feeding.
Aphrodisiacs and sex-killers
By the end of the first three months, 85 percent of the women had started having intercourse again. Sixty-five percent had engaged in oral sex and 61 percent had masturbated. In general, van Anders said, women start performing oral sex and masturbating first, with receptive oral sex and penile-vaginal intercourse coming later. The findings were detailed online June 6 in The Journal of Sexual Medicine.
In terms of timing, the most important factors for a woman were her perceptions of her partner's sexual needs and desires, suggesting that some women start sexual activity again more for their partner's benefit than their own. A woman's level of social support and her experiences in childbirth (both physical and psychological) also influenced how soon she started engaging in sexual activities again. [8 Odd Body Changes That Happen During Pregnancy]
Fatigue, stress, body image, breast-feeding and vaginal trauma were not associated with how quickly women started having sex again, however.
The biggest driver of high sexual desire for women were their feelings of intimacy and closeness to their partners, the researchers found. Next came their partner's interest in sex, followed by their own number of sexual feelings and their amount of support from their partner. Top sex-drive killers were fatigue, the baby's sleeping habits and a lack of time.
Contrary to beliefs that a man seeing his partner in the throes of labor is a turn-off, the study found that women whose partners were in the delivery room reported stronger sexual desire post-birth. Van Anders and her colleagues are now collecting data on men's experiences in the first months of their children's lives, but it may be that the support during labor boosts intimacy in couples, she said.
Doctors usually recommend that women avoid sex in the first six weeks postpartum, both to promote healing and to reduce the risk of infection. But 26 percent of women did engage in intercourse before their six-week checkup, van Anders said. (After seven weeks, that number jumps to 61 percent.) Masturbation rates of 40 percent in the first few weeks suggest that women are interested in getting back to being sexual.
"Health-care providers often don't discuss too much about sexuality before that six-week period except to express that women shouldn't be doing anything penetrative until after that timeframe," van Anders said. "But our data suggest that women are engaging in a host of behaviors and that they have desire."
That may mean that doctors need to listen more to their patients about their sexuality. That's not to say that the postpartum period needs to be a time of wild sex, van Anders said — new parents do have other things to worry about at this point, after all, and some may not be interested in sexuality — but discussions about sexuality, relationships, support and fatigue could help women feel more comfortable with their postpartum sexuality and have more positive post-birth experiences.
"I think we need to make room for thinking broadly about women's sexuality in the postpartum period, as a part of positive lifelong sexuality but also as a positive part of the postpartum experience," van Anders said.