By Priyam Joshi
This blog is a summary of our published article: Dawson, S. J., Leonhardt, N. D., Impett, E. A., & Rosen, N. O. (2021). Associations Between Postpartum Depressive Symptoms and Couples’ Sexual Function and Sexual Distress Trajectories Across the Transition to Parenthood. Annals of Behavioral Medicine.
Becoming a parent for the first time is one of the most exciting and challenging times in a couple’s relationship. Between fluctuating hormones and body changes in pregnancy to interrupted sleep and adapting to new roles and responsibilities of parenthood, a couple’s sex life and their mental health can drastically change in pregnancy and following the birth of a child.
But what exactly changes?
Some first-time parents experience changes in their desire or interest in sex, problems becoming or stayed aroused, difficulties reaching orgasm, or just feeling less sexually satisfied. While these changes are common, some people find themselves worrying a lot and become quite distressed about these changes. This is also a vulnerable time for expectant and new parents to experience shifts in their mood or even depressive symptoms.
Why does this matter?
Sex is an important aspect of many people’s lives and is linked with a stronger and more fulfilling relationship with one’s partner. Given that the transition to parenthood is a vulnerable period for mood and sexuality, we wanted to examine how postpartum depressive symptoms may be linked with changes to sexual function and sexual distress over time for both members of the couple.
What did we want to know?
- Do sexual function and sexual distress change throughout pregnancy and the postpartum? And is this true for both mothers and their partners?
- Do postpartum depressive symptoms influence how sexual function and sexual distress change over time? That is, do people who have more depressive symptoms have more sexual problems, and are these more persistent over time?
We acknowledge that because there were 7 same-gender/sex couples in our sample, it was possible for both the person who gave birth and their partner to identify as mothers. For clarity, we refer to the partner who gave birth as “mother” and the partner (regardless of their gender/sex) as “partner”.
What did we do?
We recruited a sample of 203 mixed- and same-gender/sex couples who were pregnant with their first baby and followed them from mid-pregnancy until their baby was 12-months old. Both partners completed surveys that assessed their sexual function, sexual distress, and depressive symptoms. By following couples over time, we were able to examine how sexual function and sexual distress changed during this period and how depressive symptoms related to these changes.
What happens to sexual function and sexual distress?
We found that both mothers and partners experienced declines in their sexual function during pregnancy (e.g., less desire, trouble becoming or staying aroused, difficulty reaching orgasm), but from about 3 months postpartum, sexual function improved for both new parents.
Even though both new parents reported changes to their sexual function, only mothers reported feeling worried or concerned about their sexuality. Mothers reported increasing sexual distress in pregnancy, which began to decline as their child approached 12 months old.
Are depressive symptoms linked with these changes?
Yes, we found that depressive symptoms were associated with experiencing more sexual problems and feeling more distressed about these problems at 3 months postpartum for both parents.
We didn’t find any link between depressive symptoms and how sexual function and distress improved following the birth of the baby, that is, being higher in depressive symptoms did not mean you experienced more persistent sexual difficulties postpartum.
What does this all mean?
The birth of a child and becoming a parent for the first time brings many changes in desire, arousal, orgasm, and satisfaction for both partners. These changes worsen during pregnancy and on average improve after the birth of the baby, but only mothers experience these changes as distressing. If you are a new parent experiencing changes to your sexual relationship, know that these changes are common and often get better with time, even without intervention.
Our study found that if you are also experiencing problems with low mood, these may be contributing to your sexual difficulties. The good news is that there are things that can help! Talking openly with your partner can strengthen your connection and help you face these difficulties together. Talking to your health care provider about your mood and sexual relationship can also help you access other services (e.g., therapy) that may help you navigate these changes.
The information from this study can be used to educate new parent couples about what to expect during pregnancy and the postpartum period. Increasing awareness about the normalcy of these sexual difficulties can help new parents feel less alone and less distressed about these changes. These findings may also benefit health care professionals who can share this information with the expectant and new parents that they see in their clinical practices.