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Back in the Sack - Breastfeeding and Sex

Let’s be honest: The first year of parenthood isn’t usually the most erotically charged time in your life. You and your partner are sleep-deprived. Your entire routine has been upended. And if you’ve given birth, well, your body has been through a major event. (Not to mention having carried a baby for almost ten months!)

So sexual activity may not be high on your list — and that’s understandable. But if you’re wondering when — and even if — you’ll get your mojo back, take heart. Life, including your sex life, will return to normal.

(Or something like normal, anyway.)

If you’re feeling frustrated, though, it can help to understand the changes in your body, both after giving birth and while you’re breastfeeding your baby.

Your postpartum body: Physical changes

For 9, almost 10 months, you grew a human life. Then you delivered it! It’s an amazing thing that your body just did.

But there’s a toll that pregnancy and birth take, starting with the physical recovery from childbirth. So what should you expect from your postpartum body?

There’s a reason why doctors and midwives tell you to wait for at least 6 weeks before having sex again. Whether you delivered your baby vaginally or via a C-section, your body is still healing right now. Your uterus is still shrinking and moving back to its original size and position in your body. Your vagina, labia, and pelvic core muscles are mending.

Give yourself plenty of time to recuperate!

However, even after recovery, it may take some time to feel sexy again. Your postpartum body is beautiful, but many parents feel self-conscious about stretch marks, baby weight, or other changes.

“Your body made, grew, and birthed a baby,” encourages Nest Collaborative IBCLC, Lori Theisen. “Be proud of your magical body! I promise you; your partner is impressed with all that your body just did and can do.”

A new sense of confidence

But while it’s more common to hear about parents feeling less sexy now than before, other parents feel exactly the opposite.

Why? Giving birth can be an empowering experience. Your body has just accomplished something extraordinary. Breastfeeding can also be empowering — your body is creating this amazing substance to nourish your child. For some parents, this confidence gives them a welcome boost in the bedroom.

Communication is key

If you’re feeling yourself right now, that’s wonderful. Self-confidence is something that all parents should have. But if you’re struggling with confidence, that’s okay, too.

Keep communication open with your partner about how you’re feeling and why. If feeling sexual is a struggle, let them know. If sex is painful, let them know. If you’re feeling overwhelmed — you guessed it! — let them know. Commit to working through these feelings together, and remember, there are many ways besides sex to share intimacy.

Sex, your breasts, and breastfeeding

Breastfeeding hoists some big physical changes on you, too: Engorgement, sore nipples, leaking, and more. As a breastfeeding parent, you’ll find that you have a whole new relationship, not just with your baby but with your breasts.

How you feel about your postpartum breastfeeding breasts depends, well, on your relationship to your body and sex. For some parents, the overnight shifting of breasts from sexualized to nurturing can be head-spinning. For others, it’s easily compartmentalized.

That being said, you may find your breasts behaving in surprising ways during sex. Some breastfeeding parents have letdowns during sex, particularly when they orgasm — from small drips to big milk sprays.

On the other hand, if you previously enjoyed having your breasts touched during sex, you may now find it off-putting. Some parents find humor in these moments. Others find them frustrating or embarrassing. It all depends on your body and your relationship with it and your partner.

“This is a great time to explore your new body and your new breasts,” tells Theisen. “Some women feel confident with their new breasts. Some women feel a bit timid yet and wear a tank top during sex. Either way is perfect! You, do you, Mama! There is no wrong way.”

Hormones (and more hormones)

Whether you’re breastfeeding or not, you experience a massive shift in hormones once you deliver the placenta — your body suddenly stops producing high doses of progesterone. And if you’re breastfeeding, you’ll start pumping out prolactin and oxytocin.

These hormones are responsible for milk production and bonding with your baby, but they can also drive down estrogen and testosterone levels. What does that mean? Your sex drive can drop, making even the idea of getting close seem like a million miles away.

What’s more, lower estrogen levels can mean decreased blood flow to your vaginal area. A suppressed blood flow below reduces your level of vaginal lubrication and causes vaginal dryness, making sex, well, less sexy.

When you have an uncomfortable or painful experience during sex, this can create negative associations. From a hormonal perspective, this increases stress and cortisol levels, which inhibits oxytocin. This has a one-two punch effect: it makes it harder to achieve an orgasm, which can be frustrating on its own. But it also can decrease your milk supply, as stress can negatively impact milk production.

Ways to cope

Depending on how long you plan on breastfeeding, you might need to come up with some new tricks for the bedroom. If you’re craving sexual intimacy with your partner:

  • Put sex on the calendar. It may not sound sexy, but it helps you prioritize your relationship with your partner.
  • Don’t rush into the main act. Give yourself time to get into the mood.
    Invest in a good lubricant to offset vaginal dryness.
  • Don’t limit yourself to penetrative intercourse — there are many creative options that can be intimate and satisfying.

If you’re experiencing pain during sex, pump the breaks and try again later. If pain is ongoing, though, consider consulting with your healthcare provider. It also may help to see a physical therapist who specializes in postpartum pelvic floor recovery.

The load of parenthood

Your sex life as a breastfeeding parent isn’t just impacted by recovering from birth, changes to your body, or cultural attitudes towards breasts — there’s a lot of psychological and emotional factors that weigh on it.

First, consider that parenthood, especially when you’re exclusively breastfeeding, is a 24-hour a day job.

You’re constantly tending to a little human’s needs. Maybe even more than one. You’re caring, feeding, comforting, nurturing nonstop. It’s incredibly intimate! And no matter how much you love your partner, when you finally get a few minutes to yourself, you may find yourself craving solitude, not more intimacy.

This feeling is known as being “touched out,” and it’s a normal part of new parenthood.

“Feeling touched out is normal. Express to your partner how you feel. Maybe a day alone resting, shopping, reading a book all alone can revitalize you,” suggests Theisen.

Exhaustion

What’s more, lack of sleep and exhaustion can do a number on your sex drive. Regardless of parental status, insomnia and sleep deprivation negatively impact arousal and sexual activity.

Conversely, more sleep has been shown to correlate to increased desire, especially in breastfeeding parents. A 2015 study found that longer sleep duration led to greater next-day sexual desire and that participants who got a mere one additional hour of sleep were 14 percent more likely to engage in partnered sexual activity.

Getting more sleep is one of those things that we all want, though. How can we actually get it when you’re juggling breastfeeding, a new baby, and the rest of life?

  • Nap when your baby naps
  • Trade-off middle-of-the-night feeds — consistently!
  • Consider co-sleeping to make breastfeeding easier at night
  • Enlist help from friends and family

Mental health and sex

Another part of the mental load of parenthood is the stress and responsibility you now bear.

Being a parent is hard. It’s absolutely common to worry about whether you’re doing everything right — or everything wrong. As your life adjusts, it’s common to feel sad, lonely, anxious, or even a little depressed for a short period of time.

When your mental well-being doesn’t improve, though, you may be experiencing something more than hormonal- and life-transition-based mood fluctuations. You may be dealing with a perinatal mood disorder.

Perinatal mood disorders can have a wide range of symptoms, including low mood, uncontrollable worrying, disrupted sleep, and, yes, loss of interest in sex. If you’re not feeling like yourself, it’s important to remember that perinatal mood disorders are treatable and temporary. Talk to your partner about how you’re feeling and reach out for professional support.

Sex, breastfeeding, and birth control

It’s normal to feel a little cautious about resuming sex after having a new baby. After all, you just went through pregnancy, childbirth, and the early part of postpartum life. You love your baby to pieces, but another one right now? No thanks!

If you’re worried about possibly conceiving again, here’s some reassurance: Breastfeeding parents are unlikely to get pregnant while breastfeeding, even without using contraception. Why? The hormonal changes mentioned earlier — specifically, suppressed estrogen levels — prevents your menstrual cycle from returning in a process that is known as the lactational amenorrhea method (LAM).

LAM can effectively be used as birth control when the following criteria are met:

  • You haven’t resumed your menstrual cycle
  • Your baby is exclusively breastfed (this means no bottles!)
  • Your baby is 6 months old or younger

While no method of birth control is 100 percent effective, using lactational amenorrhea to prevent pregnancy has a high degree of success — studies show that, with typical usage, parents have approximately a 2 percent chance of unintended pregnancy.

Curious how LAM stacks up against other forms of birth control? You’d be surprised.

Your journey, our support

We’re here to answer your questions and help you find solutions. Book a convenient online video appointment with a Nest Collaborative IBCLC today.

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