When couples become parents, a number of adjustments are made, including a sexual compromise. Past research has focused mainly on the new mothers, but the dynamics between the mother and her partner plays a role in sexual feelings and activities. This study examines postpartum sexuality in the couple per se.
General Trends in Partner Sexuality
There has been little research on partner sexuality during the postpartum period and much of that research has focused only on male partners. It appears that men’s sexual desire remains consistent, but sexual frequency decreases during the first year after delivery. These findings suggest that psychosocial factors influence perceptions of postpartum sexuality.
Sexual adjustments are usually made at this time. Sexual activity may shift away from intercourse to noncoital partnered activity and masturbation. Men often accept that sexual changes will occur after birth, as they understand the need for the birth mother to heal following delivery. Such adjustments, however, can be complex and may not align with the partner’s level of expectations.
Past research has shown that relationship satisfaction decreases in 6 to 12 months after a baby’s birth, but few studies have examined why. It has been suggested that men may feel left out of childcare or jealous of the connection between the mother and infant. Understanding these relationship aspects may help explain partners’ sexuality changes during the postpartum period.
The experiences of partners in relation to birth experience and vaginal injury have not been widely studied, perhaps because they are not always considered in a social or relational context. Two studies have focused on how the delivery might affect a man’s sexual dysfunction. Such studies do not look at the positive influences of the birth on sexuality. None of the research has discussed the relationship between delivery method and sexual enjoyment or desire, although some have touched on men’s concerns about hurting birth mothers during sexual activity by breaking stitches, etc.
Studies have shown that breastfeeding may affect the way a partner views the relationship with the birth mother and sexuality. Some men feel conflicted about breastfeeding. They know it is positive, but feel left out of the mother-infant bonding. For others, breastfeeding does not seem to have an impact. Breastfeeding’s effect on male sexuality has many angles and may be informed by their perceptions of what breastfeeding involves.
The authors noted the following limitations of past research on partners’ postpartum sexuality:
• They have focused mainly on men/husbands, “effectively ignoring the experiences of lesbian partners and unmarried couples.”
• Studies have had small sample sizes.
• Research questions assume that birth and new parenthood affect men’s sexuality negatively because of the biological aspects. Questions generally do not consider contextual and relational factors.
• Sexuality after childbirth is rarely seen positively.
• Studies that do include partners tend to compare mothers and partners rather than examine partners on their own.
The authors also pointed out some terminology limitations in the present study, as it is difficult to find a term for “partner” that is all-inclusive. To this end, they stated, “we will accordingly use co-parent throughout to refer to individuals involved in both romantic/sexual relationships with birth mothers and parenting relationships with the newborn.” In this context, the term “co-parent” does not refer to birth mothers themselves.
The goals of this study were to examine the physical, social, relational, and psychological experiences of co-parents during the first 3 months after childbirth to determine how these experiences affected sexuality.
Participants, Procedure, and Materials
The participants included 114 co-parents (95 men, 18 women, and 1 unspecified) between the ages of 19 and 54 who had had a child in the past seven years (their mean age was 29).
To be included, all participants had to have been involved with parenting for the three months after their child’s birth and have a sexual relationship with the birth mother during this time.
Each participant completed a retrospective questionnaire about their sexuality for the three months following their youngest child’s birth. Demographic information was also collected.
The questionnaire addressed the following areas:
• Birth experience. The researchers adapted the Questionnaire Measuring Attitudes on Labor and Delivery (QMAALD) to evaluate co-parents’ feelings during their partner’s labor and delivery (fear, confidence, etc.). Participants were also asked to rate how they thought their partner’s birth experience affected her sexual desire toward them.
• Postpartum experience. The Multidimensional Scale of Perceived Social Support (MSPSS), Perceived Stress Scale (PSS), and Body Image Self-Consciousness Scale (BISC) were used. Participants were also asked about how their baby was fed and about their own energy level during the postpartum period. Finally, co-parents were asked to rate their agreement/disagreement with five stereotypical gender role statements.
• Sexuality. Co-parents were asked which sexual activities they engaged in before the baby’s birth and which they resumed in the first three months after delivery. They also answered questions about enjoyment and initiation of sex.
The Sexual Desire Inventory (SDI) was used with an additional question that asked participants to compare their level of sexual desire with their partner’s. The co-parents also rated various factors that contributed to their highest and lowest experiences of postpartum sexual desire.
Trends in Co-Parents’ Postpartum Sexual Behavior
Highlights of this section include the following:
• Almost 82% of the co-partners said they resumed sexual intercourse within three months after childbirth.
• During this time, approximately 70% engaged in oral sex and about 73% masturbated.
• Sexual activities that did not involve the birth mother’s vagina peaked in the first six weeks after delivery.
• Sexual activities involving the birth mother’s genitals steadily resumed over the 3-month period.
• Masturbation tended to resume much earlier than intercourse, oral sex on the co-parent, and oral sex on the birth mother.
• Oral sex on the co-partner tended to resume earlier than oral sex on the birth mother.
• Birth experience, social support, stress, body image self-consciousness, birth trauma, fatigue, and partner’s breastfeeding status did not seem to influence resumption of sexual activity.
Effects on Postpartum Sexual Desire
The authors reported the following results:
• The top three factors contributing to high sexual desire were “amount of sexual feelings,” “my partner’s level of interest in being sexual with me,” and “amount of intimate or close feelings toward my partner.”
• The top three factors contributing to low sexual desire were “personal level of fatigue,” “amount of stress,” and “amount of available time.”
• Conformity to traditional gender roles and co-parent involvement in feeding the baby did not affect postpartum sexuality as much as the authors expected.
Gender-Specific Experiences During the Postpartum
The authors acknowledged that their sample of female co-parents was small. They found that female co-parents had higher scores on the social support assessment than male co-parents.
In terms of resuming sexual activity, male co-parents were more likely to engage in penetration activity, but there were no significant differences between genders for oral sex or masturbation.
Understanding Co-Parent Postpartum Experience
Past studies have suggested that masturbation may have resumed earlier than other activities because of fear of the effects of penetrative sex. However, the results of this study did not necessarily agree.
Also in previous research, psychosocial and relational variables affected birth mothers’ desire and resumption of sexual activity after delivery. However, this study did not find such associations, except for employment. Employed co-parents had higher scores on the SDI than those who were unemployed. This connection may suggest that other factors, beyond the scope of this study, could affect co-parents’ desire. Further research may investigate factors such as job satisfaction, income level, job support, and parental leave policies.
Influences of Gender on Postpartum Experience
The authors noted that these results should be viewed carefully, as the sample size of female co-parents was small.
Perception of social support was different between female and male co-parents. The authors suggested that women may have a wider, closer network of friends to consult with when compared to men, who may see their partner (now more involved with the baby) as their main means of social support.
Male co-parents were more likely to resume penetrative sex than female co-parents. This might be explained by masculine stereotypes and beliefs about sexual activity. It’s possible that men felt a certain degree of pressure about penetration that female co-parents did not.
Conceptualizing Postpartum Sexuality
The authors explained, “Results from this study and previous research suggest that postpartum sexuality can be conceptualized as an individualized experience within a partnership, as well as one that occurs in a larger social and relational context.”
They acknowledged several limitations:
• Retrospective reporting could be inaccurate, especially since time had passed since the postpartum period.
• The scales used had not been validated for retrospective use or for use with co-parents.
• The findings cannot be generalized to all co-parents. Participants were all in sexual relationships with birth mothers and there were few female co-parents involved with the study. Ages of mothers and co-parents could also be studied further.
• This study did not look at other intimate activities, such as kissing, hugging, and cuddling.
“Despite these limitations,” the authors wrote, “this study offers a contemporary lens to understanding the experiences of co-parents’ sexuality during the postpartum period using a population sample that extends beyond heterosexual married men and considers sexual activities beyond penetrative intercourse.”