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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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A group called The Unnecesarean pointed out today that anesthesiologists, themselves, are aware that WALKING in labor (“ambulating” in medical terms) reduces cesarean rates. Though I am an advocate of natural hospital birth, I share the goal of reducing unnecessary cesareans. It seems to me that if “walking epidurals” are known to reduce the risk of cesarean in women who want epidural anesthesia, we should be offering these more often. (Please know that I say that with the belief that no woman should be offered anesthesia in labor that she does not want. Women who want a natural birth deserve FULL support for this!) As “The Unnecessarean” points out, the anesthesiologist quoted in this article is blunt in admitting that it is “easier” to manage laboring women in bed. But labor is not about ease. It is about birthing the next generation. It is worth the hard work of women AND hospital staff!

Here are some excerpts and a link to the article. Thank you to The Unnecesarean for pointing this out.

Most notably, only four of the patients who received a walking epidural experienced hypotension compared with 44 patients in the nonambulatory group. Only 113 in the walking group required bladder catheterization compared with 187 in the nonambulatory group. Motor block was seen far less frequently in the ambulatory group (14 vs. 145 patients in the nonambulatory group), and cesarean delivery was less common as well (53 vs. 65, respectively).

On the other hand, patients who received walking epidurals reported more pruritus and required more interventions, as demonstrated by higher total PCA volume and use of rescue doses of ropivacaine. The duration of labor was unaffected.

“Even with the benefits to the patient, walking epidurals are not used very often because they are more time-consuming in terms of patient management,” said study leader Shaul Cohen, MD, professor of anesthesiology at UMDNJ, in New Brunswick. “It’s much easier to keep them in bed with a Foley catheter. And it’s an insurance issue. Insurance companies pay for care not quality of care, and they won’t pay for the additional time and staff required by walking epidural.”

Dr. Cohen added that the increased use of cesarean delivery—nearly 45% of laboring women in New Jersey now undergo the surgery, he said—makes it more difficult, if not impossible, for obstetric anesthesiologists to offer patients the walking epidural approach.

Others in the field have a more tempered view of its benefits, however. “There is no ‘ideal’ epidural infusion regimen for labor analgesia,” said David Wlody, MD, chief of anesthesiology at the State University of New York-Downstate Medical Center, in New York City, and a specialist in obstetric anesthesiology. “Different patients, anesthesiologists and obstetric providers will have different expectations regarding pain relief in labor,” said Dr. Wlody, a member of the editorial board of Anesthesiology News, who was not involved in the latest research.

“Some patients may be willing to tolerate a greater amount of discomfort if it means enhanced ability to ambulate, while others will desire more pain relief at the expense of increased motor block,” Dr. Wlody added. “It is the responsibility of the anesthesiologist to balance these often conflicting goals in order to provide the best outcomes and the highest degree of patient satisfaction.”

http://www.anesthesiologynews.com/ViewArticle.aspx?d=Clinical%2BAnesthesiology&d_id=1&i=May+2013&i_id=956&a_id=23112#.UaSyPv1c7Q0.facebook

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I see my main job not as a doula, but as a public advocate whose mission is to mainstream natural birth. That doesn’t mean that I PREACH about natural birth (unless I am preaching to the choir at a doula or midwifery conference). I’ve found that preaching doesn’t get me very far when I am talking to the uninformed, underinformed, or people who actually disagree with me. But I do try to take advantage of situations in which it makes sense to tell positive birth stories and bring up my profession as a doula. Just saying the word can be a powerful catalyst in a room of people who’ve never heard it.

I watched it happen today, except it was not me who said the word. It was a college student, just explaining to other students in a class why he had missed class the day before.

His wife is a doula. She had been attending a birth for twenty-four hours. He had to stay home and watch their toddler.

I teach anthropology at a working-class state university in Michigan. My students are a DIVERSE group, though they are usually poorer and come from more disadvantaged backgrounds than the students at the fancy state university (University of Michigan).  That tiny spark — a man saying the word “doula” to fellow students — resulted in several conversations right there in front of my eyes. I didn’t start the conversation. I just stood there, basking in the glow of people talking about birth and realizing that there are more options than they knew. Ripples. Seeds planted.

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Reason #1: A doula can relieve your partner in a long labor. Sometimes the tasks required of a partner during a labor can be impossible without backup support from a doula. A labor that lasts through several mealtimes or all your normal sleeping hours can wipe out not only mom-to-be, but her support team, too. Doulas can allow partners to take 20-minute naps (or in really long labors, two or three hour naps) and visit the bathroom without being worried about leaving you alone. I once played back-up doula for a long labor in which the first-line doula AND the father needed relief. They had been supporting the mom-to-be for almost 36 hours straight and neither the doula nor the dad had slept for more than about 30 minutes. I came in the middle of the night for a four-hour relief stretch. I barely knew this couple, but I slipped into the dark room and quickly learned how to give back pressure the way this laboring mother needed. Her doula and partner went to the lounge to sleep. Mom and I worked together without saying much, just in the rhythm of labor. She was handling her contractions well; she was just exhausted. She, too, slept in between sensations. At dawn, the doula and father returned and I said good-bye. The doula and father agreed to take one-hour shifts after that so that they didn’t burn out. The baby was born, healthy and beautiful, about six hours later.

As a post script to this story, I ran into this woman two years later and found out that she had become a doula herself. She said she was so amazed at the support the two of us had given her and her husband that she wanted to give that gift to other families. She gushed about how incredulous she was that I had come in the middle of the night to offer relief to her support team. It was nice to hear, but it was also easy to say, “That’s what doulas do!”

BTW: here’s a link to a “10 Reasons To Hire a Doula” article by Ann Douglas. They are all good reasons. Excellent reasons. But I am going to try to write down the “other” reasons here in this series. The reasons that it’s GREAT to have a doula, but that most people don’t think about until after the fact (or, often, until it’s too late!): http://www.ohbabymagazine.com/prenatal/why-doulas-are-a-moms-best-friend/

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Three thousand midwives are gathered today in Durban, South Africa.

Think about that! Three thousand midwives, from all over the world, are gathered in one city, determined to bring healthy birth to every corner of the world.

If three thousand midwives can be in Durban, think about how many more midwives there are in the world who stayed home to catch babies. That is the amazing number! So many more than three thousand. Thousands and thousands of women have made it their life’s work to guide babies into this world with love, care, compassion, and deep respect for the rhythms of nature. Midwives are doing this work, yet they remain largely invisible. In some places, they are even still persecuted. I was so happy to give birth to my second child in Ontario, where midwifery is not only legal, but fully supported by the government.

No wonder, then, that the president of the International Confederation of Midwives comes from Canada, eh?

So many modern women in Canada and the United States and Europe think the word “midwife” refers to uneducated women from the 1700s who helped women give birth before modern medicine stepped in. My undergraduates invariably pronounce “midwifery” “MID-WIFE-ERY” when I teach about birth in medical anthropology. They’ve never seen or heard that word before. (They can usually pronounce “obstetrician” just fine!)

I am so grateful that I live in 2011, so that I have access to obstetricians AND midwives. We are SO blessed in our time. And in our place.

The balance between midwifery (the science and art of low-risk pregnancy and birth that requires low-tech watching and waiting, mostly) and obstetrics (the science and art of high-risk pregnancy and birth that requires high-tech interventions) is what makes birth so safe in our modern world. Ironically, the places in the world where there isn’t enough midwifery, like the United States, and the places in the world where there isn’t enough obstetrics, like rural Africa or rural India, suffer from the same problem: bad birth outcomes. Why is that? Well, when we treat a low-risk pregnancy like a high-risk pregnancy we create bad outcomes. And when we treat a high-risk pregnancy like a low-risk pregnancy we create bad outcomes.

Worst of all, of course, is when a pregnant woman has no access to care at all.

We desperately need more midwives in the world! You can follow the International Confederation of Midwives in Africa this week at http://www.internationalmidwives.org.

Here’s a taste from their press release:
Midwives from over 111 countries will gather today at the International Confederation of Midwives Triennial Congress in Durban, South Africa. They will call for governments worldwide to take the necessary steps to end to needless deaths of women in pregnancy and childbirth. Congress will start with an inaugural rally and march at 1.30pm on the 18th June, when 1000 Congress delegates and supporters will walk for 5km through the city. This is the first time ICM has held a Congress in Africa. The event and the march represent a show of solidarity with mothers and midwifery colleagues across a continent which has some of the highest rates of maternal and infant mortality in the world. According to global estimates around 364,000 women die in pregnancy and childbirth each year. 99% of these deaths occur in low resource countries.

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