For many women, becoming a mom is one of the greatest life events she will ever experience. I’m not talking about the birthing process, so much, or even the first couple weeks after having a baby. More so, when you’re not so plagued by hormonal changes and sleep deprivation, and you finally get the hang of mothering. It’s amazing!
While it is true that a woman’s body will undergo significant changes during pregnancy, it’s equally important to recognize the changes that are happening in her brain not only during pregnancy, but beyond childbirth. These brain changes can profoundly influence the relationships in a new mom’s life, especially her sexual relationship.
It has been well established that during pregnancy women experience an enormous increase in progesterone and estrogen, which allows their body to carry a baby. However, new research shows that the changes are not only hormonal, but that a woman’s brain undergoes functional and structural brain changes that can last up to two years. Evidence suggests that these brain changes are not only foundational for the survival of the child—increased aggression, environmental awareness, and protective instincts—but contribute to the attachment and bonding that takes place between a mother and her baby.
From birth, the sweet smell of her baby, the noises and cries they make, and the skin-to-skin contact between them increases the production of oxytocin in a mother’s brain. Oxytocin is often referred to as the “love hormone” or “cuddle chemical” in the brain. The presence of estrogen and oxytocin in the brain increase the production of dopamine—known as the pleasure or reward chemical in the brain—creating intense feelings of happiness and contentment. Interestingly, this is the same reward pathway in the brain that is activated through intimate communication, affection, and orgasm.
A mother’s love for her baby can look a lot like romantic love. In fact, a mother’s love and breastfeeding—because it stimulates the production of oxytocin, dopamine, and prolactin in the brain—can interfere with or replace a mother’s desire for sex.
After childbirth, doctors recommend that women wait six to eight weeks before engaging in sexual activity, so that nothing disrupts the healing process. This is a time for sexual reprieve for both new parents. Research suggests that a father’s brain also experiences changes within the first weeks of their child’s life, suppressing their testosterone levels and increasing their estrogen levels. Yes, men have estrogen too. For men, these changes in their brain chemistry allow them to emotionally bond with their new baby, but also decreases their sex drive during this time. However, these chemical changes are short lived. Most new dads are going to want to re-establish their sexual relationship with their wife sooner than later.
For many moms, especially those who are breastfeeding, their brain is marinating in oxytocin and dopamine, producing feelings of physical and emotional love. At this point, she may not feel the need for any physical connection with her husband or have any desire for sex.
Who are we kidding? Neuroscience aside, the thought of having sex after having a baby is scary. The physical and mental realities can be overwhelming.
For most women, their pre-baby and post-baby bodies have a very different shape and consistency. They are sleep-deprived: statically losing an average of seven hundred hours of sleep in the first year. They are easily aware of and distracted by every noise their child makes, making it difficult to focus on anything else. So, choosing to catch up on sleep or pulling it all together to “feel sexy” can be challenging.
Additionally, women who experience difficulty during or persistent pain following childbirth, bonding with their baby, or suffer from postpartum depression have less interest in re-engaging in a physical and sexual relationship with their husband.
In this regard, interesting insight can be gained from postnatal research. A study was conducted that included over 1,000 women eight-weeks after having a baby. The results indicate that 25 percent of those women had not attempted intercourse, five percent had attempted intercourse but it was unsuccessful, and 71 percent had successfully achieved intercourse eight-weeks after the delivery of their baby. Of those women who had not attempted intercourse, they indicate that it was tiredness, depression, or simply a lack of interest.
Not to scare you, but a small percentage of women, 12-18 months after having a baby, had not engaged in intercourse. Most reasons given included physical exhaustion, depression, lack of interest, but more importantly, they were afraid of getting pregnant again.
My friend told me this story: She and her husband went to her post-delivery appointment, and it was her husband who asked the doctor, “So, when can we start having sex again?” The doctor replied, “Six to eight weeks.” Without missing a beat, my friend turned to her husband and said, “You heard the doctor, 68 weeks...we have to wait 68 weeks to have sex again.”
I mention all of these factors so that new moms (and dads) recognize that it’s completely normal to feel reluctant to re-engage in their sexual relationship after having a baby.
So, how do you rekindle the intimacy and sexual connection after having a baby? Here are a few suggestions :
Just like when you were dating and first married, you scheduled time to intimately connect with one another. It is even more important to make time for each other after having a baby. Start by intentionally engaging in non-sexual touch. Invest in the six-second hug to get that oxytocin flowing for your spouse. This is how long it takes for those feel-good chemicals in your brain to start flowing. Try it!
Then, as you reconnect through sexual activity and achieve orgasm, you will flood your brain with oxytocin and dopamine, strengthening the physical and emotional bond you have with your husband!
Many experts recommend keeping a new baby in the parents room, which can be great for so many reasons, but not so great for creating a mood for sex. Take the opportunity to engage your husband with a sexy text: “Baby’s asleep...meet me in the bedroom…” This may take practice, but it can spark some romance and help increase the frequency of your sexual connection.
For many stay-at-home moms, especially with a new baby, the stress of household chores can feel overwhelming. All of the best baby books tell new moms to sleep while their baby sleeps, but then who cleans the dishes, does the laundry, vacuums, grocery shops, and cooks meals? I don’t remember the “cleaning fairies” showing up at my house after I had a baby and “slept while the baby slept.” While this is a wonderful idea, it is often an unrealistic expectation.
Although prior to having a baby, you could clean, cook, and efficiently maintain a full-time career, things have changed. Ladies, don’t be afraid to ask for help around the house. While you may not believe it, your husband is quite capable, and most likely willing, to fold laundry, clean dishes, and much more. Start by asking him—you may be surprised at how willing he is to help.
This may not seem like a big deal, but many women can’t relax, or even contemplate taking time for sex, if her house is a mess.
3. BE RELATIONALLY INTENTIONAL
While there are many life events that challenge the strength of a marriage, having a baby is one such event. It can be the best of times and the worst of times, if you will. Having a baby is a wonderful, life-changing experience. It changes all aspects of your life. Although it’s an amazing life event, it’s stressful. It’s the good kind of stress, but it’s still stress.
After having a baby, many women report feeling annoyed and intolerant of their husband’s behaviors, especially when it comes to sexual advances. Both new parents need to be aware of this issue.
For new dads: remember, this is nothing personal. It can be explained by everything previously discussed.
For new moms: remember, your husband is not the enemy. As previously explained, your brain and body have gone through some major changes over the past year. Keep in mind that as you re-engage in physical contact with your husband—through non-sexual and sexual contact—your brain will release oxytocin, which will help you feel more connected to him.
Be intentional about re-establishing your relationship with your husband:
Investing time and energy in your sex life is not just important for new moms, it’s important for all moms!
It’s true, having your first child profoundly affects the husband/wife sexual dynamic. However, as you continue to have children and your family grows, maintaining a healthy sexual relationship can be challenging.
You will always be busy: running kids to sporting events, piano rehearsal, youth group, dentist appointments, and the list goes on and on. It will feel like you never have time for yourself, let alone quality time for your husband.
Here’s the great news: regardless of where you’re at in motherhood, it is never too late to rekindle the intimacy and sexual connection in your marriage.
The above three suggestions—scheduling time for sex, dual-duty on household chores, and being relationally intentional—will work no matter what season of life you’re in. Why? Because these behaviors bring you together as a couple, they cause you to connect in a way that is unique to you, and they produce the brain chemicals that make you “feel” in love with your husband.
Don’t believe the lie that “sex is just for men.” Ladies, your brain needs sex. Your brain needs physical connection and intimacy with your husband. While it may feel like work to invest in your sex life, believe me, your brain will thank you.
Heather is our Neuroscience Professional on staff at Pure Desire. Heather has a Bachelor's in Psychology and a Master's Degree in Criminal Behavior. She worked several years as a college professor prior to joining Pure Desire. She is an integral part of our speaking team, and recently co-authored her first book, Digital Natives: Raising an Online Generation.