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By David B. Allsop

This blog is a summary of our published article: Dawson, S. J., Strickland, N. J., & Rosen, N. O. (2020). Longitudinal associations between depressive symptoms and sexual concerns among first-time parent couples during the transition to parenthood. The Journal of Sex Research. DOI: 10.1080/00224499.2020.1836114

Becoming a parent can be both a joy and a challenge. On one hand, there is nothing quite like the joy of holding a newborn baby in your arms or watching your baby’s first steps. On the other hand, there is nothing quite like the challenges of being a first-time parent, including how to manage one’s sexual relationship after a baby is born. Many parents, for example, face a variety of sexual concerns after having a new baby that bring distress, such as a sexual desire differences between partners, a mother’s physical recovery after delivery, or how time spent caring for a baby will affect time for sex [1].

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While researchers understand that parents face distressing sexual concerns postpartum (i.e., after a baby is born), little is understood about the timing of these concerns, such as whether sexual concerns are more prevalent right after a baby is born compared to several months postpartum. Additionally, little is known about whether depressive symptoms—which are common postpartum [2] and can affect sexual well-being [3]—explain the course of new parents sexual concerns over time.

What did the researchers do?

In light of this, the researchers investigated two questions to better understand the experiences of new parents:

  1. How do postpartum sexual concerns and depressive symptoms change over time?
  2. To what extent do depressive symptoms predict initial levels of postpartum sexual concerns and change in sexual concerns over time?

They used survey data from 99 new mothers and their partners to answer their research questions. Both mothers and partners answered survey questions about the severity of the sexual concerns they face and their levels of depressive symptoms. Participants took surveys at 3-, 6-, and 12-months postpartum. The researchers then statistically modelled the course of sexual concern and depressive symptoms over time using this data.

What did the researchers find?

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Dawson and colleagues’ had three key sets of findings from their study. First, levels of sexual concern between 3- and 12-months postpartum appeared to decline for both mothers and partners.

Also, when either member of the couple (i.e., the mother or the partner) had higher initial levels of sexual concern at 3-months postpartum, the other member of the couple tended to have higher initial levels of sexual concern as well.

Second, contrary to their expectations, mothers’ levels of postpartum depressive symptoms remained stable over time, neither increasing nor declining on average. Additionally, and also opposite to their expectations, partners slightly increased in depressive symptoms over time.  

Third, when either member of the couple had higher initial levels of depressive symptoms at 3-months postpartum, the other member of the couple tended to have higher initial levels of sexual concern as well. Higher levels of mother’s depressive symptoms at 3-months postpartum were also related to greater decline in partners’ sexual concerns from 3- to 12-months postpartum. Surprisingly, neither mothers’ nor partners’ depressive symptoms at 3-months postpartum were related to the course of mothers’ sexual concerns from 3- to 12-months postpartum.

Why does this matter?

These findings provide evidence that new parents can expect that their levels of sexual concern will decline in the first year after their baby is born. Findings also provide evidence that both mothers’ and partners’ depressive symptoms shortly after a baby is born puts partners at risk for greater levels of sexual concern at three months postpartum. Finally, they provide evidence that mothers’ and partners’ levels of postpartum sexual concerns are related, and that mother’s and partners’ levels of depressive symptoms are related as well.

New parents and the clinicians who work with them can find hope in the fact that sexual concerns typically decline significantly in the first year postpartum. Additionally, parents and clinicians can watch for and address depressive symptoms as they may arise to maintain better sexual well-being postpartum.

References

[1] 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. The Journal of Sexual Medicine13(10), 1455-1465.

[2] Paulson, J. F., & Bazemore, S. D. (2010). Prenatal and postpartum depression in fathers and its association with maternal depression: a meta-analysis. The Journal of the American Medical Association303(19), 1961-1969.

[3] Dawson, S. J., Leonhardt, N. D., Impett, E. A., & Rosen, N. O. (2019). Associations between postpartum depressive symptoms and couples’ sexual function and sexual distress trajectories across the transition to parenthood. Annals of Behavioral Medicine55(9), 879-891.

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