By Inês Tavares
This blog is a summary of our published article: Tavares, I. M., Nobre, P. J., Schlagentweit, H., & Rosen, N. O. (2019). Sexual well-being and perceived stress in couples transitioning to parenthood: A dyadic analysis. International Journal of Clinical and Health Psychology. doi:10.1016/j.ijchp.2019.07.004
After the birth of their first baby, new parents usually have a lot to deal with. Although this period is usually very exciting, it may also feel overwhelming. If you are a new parent, then you know it is not an easy task to deal with all the demands of your new baby as well as with the novel changes in your (and your partner’s!) roles and responsibilities. On top of that, it’s also very likely that you are trying to navigate through the sexual changes that may be occurring in your relationship.
Although 30% to 50% of couples report being equally—or sometimes even more—sexually satisfied after childbirth, it can also be common for new parents to be less interested in sex or even dissatisfied with their sexual lives during the first year postpartum [1, 2]. Couples also often express specific questions or worries related to their sexuality that are unique to the postpartum , such as concerns about how often they are having sex, mismatches in sexual desire between partners, or changes in new mothers’ body image and its impact on sexual activity after childbirth. Our lab’s previous work has found that these concerns can actually be very common in both mothers and fathers, as previously described here and here.
Given that all of these new challenges might be taxing on new parents, we wanted to understand whether sexual well-being could be particularly important for the levels of stress that these couples experience.
And, if so, could greater sexual well-being be related to lower stress for these couples?
What did we do?
We asked 255 first-time mothers and fathers about their postpartum sexual well-being (i.e., sexual satisfaction, sexual desire, and sexual concerns specific to postpartum) as well as their levels of experienced stress. Additionally, we gathered information about other factors that might influence their stress levels across the postpartum (e.g., child age, breastfeeding, fatigue, the experience of pain during intercourse) or that are highly connected with couples’ sexual well-being (e.g., relationship satisfaction and duration).
What did we find?
- When fathers were more sexually satisfied, they were also less stressed. We also found that being more sexually satisfied was not only beneficial for you but also good for your partner: when mothers and fathers were more sexually satisfied, both partners were also less stressed!
- When mothers felt higher sexual desire for their partners they were less stressed. However, they were more stressed when fathers felt more sexual desire towards them. Because some factors (such as the physical recovery from birth and hormonal changes) may make the postpartum period especially difficult for mothers, this might make them feel more pressure when their partners want to get it on. For example, it’s possible that they interpret fathers’ greater desire as an obligation or pressure for them to engage in sexual activity, or even feel guilty about saying no to sexual activity.
- An interesting, apparently unexpected finding of this study was that when mothers and fathers were more interested in behaving sexually by themselves (i.e., masturbating), they were also more stressed. It’s possible that this is not because solitary sex leads to stress, but the other way around: new parents’ higher stress may make them feel more motivated to have sex on their own as a way to cope with their stress (especially because this doesn’t require them to integrate their partners’ needs). Therefore, solitary sexual activity (such as masturbation) may be a good strategy to regulate new partners’ levels of stress .
- In addition, when new mothers and fathers had fewer concerns about their postpartum sexuality, they also experienced less stress.
What do these findings mean?
Overall, this research tells us that the greater your sexual well-being is postpartum, the more likely you are to experience less stress (even after controlling for other factors that can contribute to high levels of stress during this time!).
Why is this important?
- Health care providers are advised to discuss postpartum sexual well-being with new parents in order to help them cope with the stress they will inevitably experience during the transition to parenthood. One way of doing so is by providing couples with relevant information about postpartum sexuality, along with effective strategies to discuss and deal with their sexual worries.
- For new mothers and fathers, it’s good to know that having fun inside the bedroom may also make you feel less stressed outside the bedroom! Make room for positive sexual experiences and try to discuss your need to engage (or not engage) in sex during this period with your partner. You might just both benefit from it!
 Ahlborg, T., Dahlof, L.G., & Hallberg, L.R. (2005). Quality of intimate and sexual relationships in first-time parents six months after delivery. Journal of Sex Research, 42, 167–174. doi:10.1080/00224490509552270
 De Judicibus, M., & McCabe, M. (2002). Psychological factors and the sexuality of pregnant and postpartum women. Journal of Sex Research, 39, 94–103. doi:10.1080/00224490209552128
 Schlagintweit, H.E., Bailey, K., & Rosen, N. O. (2016). A new baby in the bedroom: Frequency and severity of postpartum sexual concerns and their associations with relationship satisfaction in new parent couples. Journal of Sexual Medicine, 13, 1455–1465. doi:10.1016/j.jsxm.2016.08.006.
 Ein-Dor, T., & Hirschberger, G. (2012). Sexual healing: Daily diary evidence that sex relieves stress for men and women in satisfying relationships. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 29, 126-139. doi:10.1177/0265407511431185