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POST-PARTUM SEX By Cynthia Gabriel, Ph.D.

No one talks about the sex life of new parents. I could make a joke here about how that’s because there is none, but that is not true at all. We would just rather gossip about a celebrity’s sex life than talk about real and challenging issues in an open, accepting way. Here in this land of individual freedom, we just let people figure things out (I mean struggle) by themselves. But it doesn’t have to be this way!

I, myself, have struggled with my sexuality in the wake of becoming a mother and I could have used some advice and reality checks. I feel lucky and privileged to have talked about this intimate subject with hundreds of women in interviews and in mother-baby groups. So, from the get-go, let me acknowledge that this is a one-sided piece. I have only heard from a handful of new fathers and even fewer lesbian mothers about this issue. But from these new mothers, I want to share some observations.

Friends, family, and medical professionals may assume you haven’t had sex in a LONG time – as if pregnancy and sex were incompatible.

Although pregnancy does slow down a sex life for some couples, for many couples pregnancy is a time of great sexual exploration. Still, birth has a way of changing the sexual dynamic, even if you were enjoying yourselves fully just a few days or weeks ago.

It takes longer to have sex after the baby is born for many couples than you think. Many people assume that the six-week mark is some magic date because there is usually a check-up at six weeks with a doctor or midwife. Yes, one of the topics of conversation at this check up is supposed to be birth control and, yes, the medical professional will examine the perineal area and the abdomen for healing. But this does not mean that a magic date has arrived. Do not think for a moment that MOST people have sex sometime around the six-week mark. Some do. But many, many, many do not.

The first time you have sex after having a baby is more of a “check in” than an act of passion. This may continue for a while.

A woman often wonders what sex will feel like after having a baby, even if she gave birth by cesarean. “Things” feel different in her body and it’s not clear ahead of time how these new sensations will affect sex. Lactating women are probably experiencing leaking and spraying as part of their everyday lives and they usually worry about how this will affect the sexual experience. She may have relied on nipple stimulation in the past to help get to arousal. What if her nipples are too sore from a baby’s mouth to be played with like they were in the past?

If you go into the first time – and, realistically, the first five or six times – as experiments, you will be less disappointed. These are occasions to figure out what is going to work for you, not occasions to measure something about your sexual success.

Women are often deeply worried about how their partner will “see” them now. They NEED reassurance, but part of that need is not wanting to ask for it.

The partner probably needs and wants reassurance, too. The partner wants reassurance that s/he is still desirable and that the new birth mother is not so wrapped up in the infant that there is no room for their “couple-ness.” The bad news is that the new birth mother is in NO POSITION to offer this reassurance. She will be able to do this better when the baby is one year old and she is feeling more confident herself. But right now, these first MONTHS (that’s right. Months. Not weeks) she is the one who needs reassurance. It’s part of the trade-off about growing the baby and giving birth to the baby. So, no matter how much you wish she would tear your clothes off and tell you how sexy you are, now is the time for you to tenderly reassure her that you find her attractive AS SHE IS.

Getting annoyed at the baby is a TURN-OFF. Being understanding of her attunement to the baby is a TURN-ON.

If you manage to get all the things in order to have a sexual encounter (you are rested enough, had a shower, the baby is asleep, the bed is not full of baby poop or throw up, you are not mad at each other about who got up in the middle of the night for burping, etc.) and the baby wakes up and interrupts you…

If you can be understanding and caring toward your partner if she needs to take care of the baby (or if she asks you to do so) you are more likely to get another shot at this the next time the opportunity arises. It might be in five minutes, when the baby is calm or it may be another day.

If you groan and complain, you are less likely to get that second shot.

The choice is yours.

Figuring out WHEN and WHERE is more complicated than you think.

Some babies sleep enough that it’s possible to have a good sex life in your own bed. But many babies do not sleep enough and couples have to figure out where to go to have sex. The problem is that most babysitters come to YOUR house. If you can afford it, think of a hotel room for an afternoon as the same price as dinner and a movie. Once a month, this may be worth it.

Sex can hurt more after having a baby.

Although this is not true for all women, for a certain percentage of women sex after giving birth is more painful than it was before. Generally, the first thing to try is more lubrication. If that does not fix the issue, an estrogen cream can be helpful. This is a topical cream, not an estrogen pill that you take internally, so it does not have the same effects on your body that hormone pills do. In studies of “women’s sexual health after childbirth” about half of women report vaginal dryness as an issue. You are not alone!

Feeling “Touched Out” is a real problem for new mothers.

 Many new mothers who spend their days and nights caring for needy newborns want to spend their non-baby time not being touched. It’s a serious mismatch for new mothers and their partners who, likely, are feeling less touched than they were before the baby arrived.

There is not an easy answer to this problem; however, if you are the partner reading this essay, I would take away that providing down time without the baby is likely to be helpful to the new mother’s receptiveness to touch. Otherwise, this is an issue that just requires patience and understanding.

For you science geeks out there I am going to copy some information from a 2000 British Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology about this issue. What I find fascinating is that the medical professionals write it this way “Sexual morbidity increased significantly after the birth: in the first three months after delivery 83% of women experienced sexual problems, declining to 64% at six months, although not reaching pre-pregnancy levels of 38%.”

I would reframe it this way:

Most of us hope that we will return to our pre-pregnancy sex life by about six weeks after our babies are born because this is what we are led to believe by birth books and doctors. The reality is that this expectation is not realistic, but no one talks about it openly. The truth: 38% of us have sexual difficulties even before we have babies and 83% of us are not having the same kind of sex life we used to have for THREE MONTHS and 64% for SIX MONTHS after our babies are born.

In other words, it is NORMAL to have a very different kind of sex life for a LONG TIME after our babies are born. It is UNUSUAL to return to an easy-peasy sex life within six months post-partum.

INFO FROM THAT STUDY:

BJOG. 2000 Feb;107(2):186-95.

Women’s sexual health after childbirth.

Barrett G1, Pendry E, Peacock J, Victor C, Thakar R, Manyonda I.

Author information

 Abstract

OBJECTIVE:

To investigate the impact of childbirth on the sexual health of primiparous women and identify factors associated with dyspareunia.

DESIGN:

Cross-sectional study using obstetric records, and postal survey six months after delivery.

SETTING:

Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, St George’s Hospital, London.

POPULATION:

All primiparous women (n = 796) delivered of a live birth in a six month period.

METHODS:

Quantitative analysis of obstetric and survey data.

MAIN OUTCOME MEASURES:

Self reported sexual behaviour and sexual problems (e.g. vaginal dryness, painful penetration, pain during sexual intercourse, pain on orgasm, vaginal tightness, vaginal looseness, bleeding/irritation after sex, and loss of sexual desire); consultation for postnatal sexual problems.

RESULTS:

Of the 484 respondents (61% response rate), 89% had resumed sexual activity within six months of the birth. Sexual morbidity increased significantly after the birth: in the first three months after delivery 83% of women experienced sexual problems, declining to 64% at six months, although not reaching pre-pregnancy levels of 38% . Dyspareunia in the first three months after delivery was, after adjustment, significantly associated with vaginal deliveries (P = 0 x 01) and previous experience of dyspareunia (P = 0 x 03). At six months the association with type of delivery was not significant (P = 0 x 4); only experience of dyspareunia before pregnancy (P < 0 x 0001) and current breastfeeding were significant (P = 0 x 0006). Only 15% of women who had a postnatal sexual problem reported discussing it with a health professional.

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Brazil ImageBrazil has a cesarean rate that is, depending on the year, the highest in the world. Their rivals include Taiwan and China, but not the United States. Here we hover around the 33% mark, but in Brazil about half of all babies are born by surgery and in some urban, private hospitals the rates are in 70-90% range.

To put this in perspective, if we took a 20% cesarean rate as “normal” (and I do not think that is normal!) as a 2010 World Health Organization report did, several million Brazilian women are having unnecessary cesareans every year. That report calculated a world-wide excess of 6.2 million cesareans annually and half of those are in China and Brazil.

(http://www.who.int/healthsystems/topics/financing/healthreport/30C-sectioncosts.pdf, p. 8).

Why is the cesarean rate in Brazil so high?

If you ask Americans, they tend to blame Brazilian women.  Almost invariably, the first ideas we Americans have are about how the WOMEN must want more cesareans, how the women must be more used to surgeries (since they have so many more plastic surgeries than American women), how the women must be more concerned with keeping their vaginas tight and beautiful, how the women must not be willing to undergo labor.

But when I ask Brazilians in the United States, they tell me the same things that American women tell me. They say things like, “My doctor told me I didn’t have enough amniotic fluid” or “My baby was too big to be born vaginally” or “My baby was in distress.” In other words, Brazilian women understand their own cesareans as medically-necessary, even though statistically it can’t be true for most of them. (The same phenomenon occurs in the United States, I find.)

A 2014 article in the Atlantic confirms this. That article concluded that the medical system is not set up to support laboring women who are aiming for vaginal births (much less unmedicated vaginal births!). In hospitals where 70% or more of births are by cesarean, women who aim for vaginal birth are nuisances to the schedules of doctors and nurses. And it is a self-fulfilling prophecy that doctors and nurses who are skilled at cesarean birth become less and less skilled at managing natural labors.

All of this adds up to a fascinating cultural picture that I am eager to learn more about. So I am headed to Brazil at the end of May for a two-week crash course in all things birth in Brazil. I will be in Florianapolis with Ana Paula Markel, doula trainer extraordinaire, and in Belo Horizonte with my Portuguese teacher, who has promised to introduce me to young women and their families who are in the thick of this childbearing conundrum.

I’m so excited! If you are Brazilian, Brazilian-American, or an American who has given birth in Brazil, I want your stories!

Here are two articles if you’re interested in more.

http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2014/04/why-most-brazilian-women-get-c-sections/360589/

http://www.pri.org/stories/2014-05-14/brazil-half-all-mothers-have-c-sections-whether-they-want-it-or-not

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Waves

Surfing the waves of contractions, photo by Folkert Gorter

Active labor.  Contractions are hard and occasionally whipping up higher than expected. Massage and hip squeezing isn’t working. The birthing mother’s voice is getting higher and tighter.

As a doula, sometimes in these situations I reach for a visualization. And for active labor, there is no better metaphor than waves. There are so many ways to use this metaphor. Here’s an outline you can use and embellish as you like on the spot.

Here comes the wave… Take a deep breath… Now dive under this wave and through it and through it…. and now you’re coming out on the other side… swim up… Take a breath… Let it go

It’s OK if there are moments of silence in between your words or sentences. You don’t have to be talking the whole time. Speak slowly and use a low, calming voice. If she follows your lead, her own imagination will be filling in most of the details. You are just there to give her a bit of guidance. By focusing on this image of a wave, she can more easily let go of other thoughts that might have been causing anxiety (like, “How much longer will this go on?” and “I’m afraid of the next one.”) Our minds will fill with thoughts if we don’t give them something to focus on.

If you’ve never talked someone through a visualization, it can feel strange to do it the first time. I think we fear that everyone will look at us strangely and wonder why we have started talking in a sing-song voice about waves. In reality, my experience is that everyone in the room is usually happy that there is something besides pain and, often, the blips of machines on which to focus. Often the birth partner and nurses in the room will quietly take part in visualizations and, if it appears to calm down or help the birthing woman, they will even take it up, adding their own voices to the visualization. You may feel funny at first, but if you give it a real try, I guarantee you will be pulling this trick out in a lot of births.

What’s your favorite visualization?

 

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Russia Breastfeeding article

This looks like strikethrough text, but click on it! It is the link to my article about breastfeeding and “low milk supply” in Russia. We are so used to our own cultural context that we can forget that we ALL see pregnancy, birth, breastfeeding, and parenting through our own particular culture. As a breastfeeding conference is underway in my favorite city (Toronto!), I thought I would share this article I wrote a while ago about my experiences in Russia.

Things have changed in Russia since I did fieldwork there in 2000-2001, but I still think it is valuable to understand how others in the world think (or thought) about women’s reproductive bodies.
You can also get to this article by clicking on the words ‘Related articles” below. That brings up the Google link!
by C Gabriel – ‎2003 – ‎Cited by 2 – ‎Related articles

THE EFFECTS OF PERCEIVING “WEAK HEALTH” IN RUSSIA: THE CASE OF.BREASTFEEDINGCynthia Gabriel. The state of Russian health has declined.

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