It's normal to have a low sex drive postpartum.
After growing a baby and then giving birth, you have accomplished quite a lot, mama. And healing while feeding and caring for your new baby is around-the-clock work. So finding your balance in your new role might not include having sex—even after the 6-week "go-ahead" from your doctor or midwife. You might feel fine about this (after all, you have a lot to adjust to), but you might also be thinking, "Nope. Not gonna. Don't wanna... What's wrong with me?" *Sigh.*
Here's why so many new moms experience low sex drive postpartum.
There's a difference between being too tired to have sex, and too hormonal to want it.
You're probably exhausted. Maybe you feel sore, and sex isn't pleasurable at the moment. Maybe you're worried about changes to your body or getting pregnant again. Or maybe you're just touched out and feel like the only thing you have control over is your body.
But underneath all of these (perfectly legitimate) reasons you may not be interested in sex right now is a current of raging and waning hormones that have an even more powerful impact on your sex drive.
When you are pregnant, the levels of your reproductive hormones are, in some cases, 1000 times higher than when you are not pregnant. And when you give birth, all of them come crashing down to menopausal levels. The low estrogen that results can cause uncomfortable vaginal dryness—especially if you are breastfeeding—and a loss of sex drive.
This is how evolution ensures that you "don't want it" while you are healing and investing your energy into keeping your new baby alive before you start to work on the next.
Several other hormones are working postpartum to ensure your survival as well.
Oxytocin is the bonding hormone you release when you hug, have sex and breastfeed. Before birth, touching your partner triggers the release of oxytocin that helps you feel good and bond to each other. But after giving birth, with all the snuggling and feeding, "the mother winds up getting her oxytocin from her kid," explains clinical sexologist, Dr. Kat Van Kirk. "This transfer of emotional energy is thought to decrease sexual desire and increase responsiveness to infant stimuli in postpartum women by activating the brain regions associated with reward." Whether breastfeeding or bottle-feeding, the skin-to-skin contact between you and baby increases the release of oxytocin, causing you and baby to bond, ensuring that you will take care of them and they will survive.
The hormone prolactin also plays an important role in maternal behavior. Prolactin is the same anti-anxiety hormone that's released when you have sex. It increases seven-fold while you are pregnant and remains high if you breastfeed, helping to lower your estrogen levels and keep your period at bay. Prolactin causes your breasts to grow during pregnancy and prepares them for the milk production that normally starts when your levels of progesterone fall after birth and your newborn stimulates them by nursing. This hormone helps you relax while you are nursing, while it also depresses your libido—evolution making sure you remain focused on the biological investment you just made in your baby.
Fun fact: Dads are affected by low sex drive after baby, too.
Though the research is still preliminary, elevated prolactin levels in new dads is thought to induce child-care behavior, just like in moms, while reducing testosterone levels after birth. Studies have shown that the more dads interact with their baby, the lower their testosterone levels dip, decreasing libido and causing them to focus less on wanting to have sex and more on wanting to nurture. This serves to ensure that dads invest more energy in parental care than in making a new baby, while helping them relax and enjoy their newborn.
Once you have been medically cleared for sex after birth, there are no rules about when to start having sex.
It might be awhile before you feel like you want to have sex again, and it's okay to wait. However, when the time is right for you and your sexual desire has returned, you may still harbor some concerns about getting things going. Here are some tips to help you restart your sex life after baby:
- Carve out couple time. Make time to be alone to remember that you are still a couple, even after you've become parents.
- Be honest with each other. Talk about your physical changes, how it might feel to have sex or be intimate now, and anything else you might be worried about.
- Get closer. Look for other ways to express affection while you work up to having sex. Spend time just being close to each other, kissing and cuddling—without the pressure.
- And when you are ready, it helps to use lubrication.
Not wanting to have sex postpartum is perfectly normal, and in any case, it's temporary—especially if you're breastfeeding. In a study published in the journal Obstetrics and Gynecology, researchers found a significant decrease in tiredness, an improvement in mood and an increase in sexual activity, feelings and frequency within four weeks of stopping breastfeeding, when your hormones have returned to pre-pregnancy levels.
Bottom line: You are not alone if you lack the desire for sex postpartum. And like everything else that may be challenging about pregnancy and postpartum, this will pass. But for now, it's just evolution ensuring your reproductive success—protecting the enormous physical and emotional investment you have already made and ensuring the survival of you and your baby so that you can pass along your genes to future generations. Pretty powerful stuff.
Editor's note: Other medical conditions can contribute to your lack of desire. And it is important not to confuse lack of sexual desire with postpartum depression. So be alert for signs and symptoms, like severe mood swings, loss of appetite, overwhelming fatigue and lack of interest or joy for the things that are important to you. If you think you might have postpartum depression, contact your health care provider for prompt treatment and recovery. Painful sex also should be evaluated by a doctor, midwife and possibly a pelvic floor physical therapist.
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