Postpartum Libido: Why Your Sex Drive Changes After Giving Birth, and What to Do About It
During at least one of the check-up appointments in the months after giving birth, many women will be given the “green light” to have sex with their partners again. They will also likely be warned by their practitioner that, if they are breastfeeding, pregnancy can still occur, so to take the proper precautionary measures. For some of us (myself very much included) it’s a warning that will make you quite literally laugh out loud. The notion that I, in my postpartum state of perpetual exhaustion, infrequent showering, regular leaking of milk and blood, and frequent delirium, would also muster up the desire for, well, desire—when all I could think about was sweet, sweet sleep—was hilarious.
There’s a physical reason for the dip in sex drive that happens postpartum. “When a woman is pregnant her reproductive hormones are elevated and after giving birth they crash,” says Julia Arenson, a Brooklyn-based doula. “This results in a dip in estrogen, which can cause low sex drive and vaginal dryness, making sex feel painful.” There’s also an evolutionary reason for it: “It’s basically her body’s natural way of ensuring that she takes the time to properly heal and focus on caring for the baby instead of on trying to have another one,” says Vanessa Marin, a psychotherapist and writer specializing in sex therapy. Many women also still simply find themselves in a great deal of physical pain in the months postpartum after going through what is, by all accounts, a significant trauma for the body. If you are breastfeeding, that can pose its own roadblocks for the libido. “When you are breastfeeding, hormones like oxytocin [often referred to as the ‘love hormone’] and prolactin increase,” says Arenson. “Oxytocin flows during the bonding and breastfeeding process, and this can replace some of the urge to connect intimately through sex.” The accompanying lower levels of estrogen and testosterone can, adds Karyn Eilber, M.D., a urologist focused on female pelvic medicine, negatively impact the libido as well.
Hormonal cascades aside, there’s also the simple fact that reality as you know it has drastically changed. “Your body feels like it doesn’t belong to you anymore; you’re stressed and anxious about keeping your baby alive and doing everything ‘right’; you’re exhausted, overwhelmed, and seriously lacking sleep; and you’re adjusting to what it’s like to see yourself as a ‘mom’ and how that fits in with your previously held identity,” says Marin. “How could your sex drive not change?” While it’s not as common, even partners who didn’t physically give birth can experience their own libido loss. “That’s most likely due to tiredness related to newborn care, the stress on the individual and relationship that a baby can bring, or also a fear of ‘hurting’ the partner who gave birth,” Eilber explains.
If you’re waiting in the months, and often years, postpartum for your libido to just turn back on like a light switch, it doesn’t quite work that way, explains Orna Guralnik, Psy.D., a psychoanalyst and star of Showtime’s Couples Therapy. “Libido is actually a whole matrix of biological, emotional, and psychological factors,” she says. “It’s not a binary thing that’s there or not there.” It can encompass actual sexual genital desire, the psychological experience of wanting to be in a sexual situation, and the willingness to be in a sexual experience, which is different from the wanting. Having a child often changes the dynamic of a partnership because it alters the configuration: What started as a dyadic relationship, says Guralnik, shifts to a triangular relationship, a different kind of interpersonal field in which you will register yourself differently. One in which you will register yourself differently.