How will my sexual well-being be affected by becoming a parent?

By Quinn MacDonald

This blog is a summary of our published article: Rosen, N. O., Dawson, S. J., Leonhardt, N. D., Vannier, S. A., & Impett, E. A. (2021). Trajectories of sexual well-being among couples in the transition to parenthood. Journal of Family Psychology, 35(4), 523–533.

Transitioning to parenthood for the first time can come with many challenges, one of which can be the sexual well-being of the new parents. [1] Overall, sexual well-being as a whole seems to be heavily affected while couples adjust to becoming parents for the first time. [2]

This can be a tricky topic to deal with, as it is also common that things like sexual desire can be different between partners in a couple, with some fathers reporting a higher sexual desire than their female partners. [3] The frequency of sex can also be impacted simply because new parents have less time alone with each other. [4] Sexual well-being can also be affected negatively with rising tensions and conflict that come along with having a baby.[4] There isn’t as much research on how sexual distress can play a part in the lives of new parents. Sexual distress can be defined as having negative feelings toward one’s sex life, feeling emotions such as guilt, frustration and even anger. [5] Welcoming a new child into your life is a big change on its own, and when compounded with a shift in sexual well-being, it may become overwhelming!

In our study we wanted to understand this change during the transition to parenthood by defining sexual well-being into four categories: sexual frequency, sexual desire, sexual satisfaction, and sexual distress.

What did we do?

We asked 203 first-time parent couples to complete online surveys at seven different time points from 18-24 weeks pregnant until 12 months postpartum. Couples independently reported on their own levels of sexual frequency, sexual desire, sexual satisfaction and sexual distress. We measured these four facets of sexual well-being, as well as taking into account that some aspects of sexual well-being may differ between couples and show different patterns over time. We also wanted to see if any of the categories of sexual well-being interacted with each other.

What did we find?

Couples who had reported high levels of sexual activity and couples who had sex less frequently showed a decrease in sexual frequency from baseline to 12 months postpartum.

Mothers’ sexual desire significantly decreased over time, while their partners’ sexual desire did not.

On average, neither mothers’ nor their partners’ sexual satisfaction changed over the study’s length.

Couples in which neither partner were experiencing serious sexual distress showed an increase in sexual distress for the mother between mid-pregnancy and 3-months postpartum but decreased after that, while their partners’ sexual distress did not change. For couples who were experiencing a difference in sexual distress levels, neither partner showed change over time.

What does this mean?

While all couples did report a decrease in sexual activity, some couples still maintained high levels. This means that while sexual well-being is likely to be disrupted by the transition to parenthood, it is an individual experience across all couples. Also, in some of the facets, such as sexual distress, while levels increased during the postpartum, they did return to the average levels after a while. This was also the case for sexual desire in mothers, while desire did decrease, it began to increase again around 3 months postpartum.

Our findings also suggest that many couples are able to adapt to this change in their lives and (as evidenced by the lack of changes in reported sexual satisfaction) adjust their expectations for what sexual activity might look like during this period.

Parents lying on bed with new born, kissing each other.


[1] McBride, H. L., & Kwee, J. L. (2017). Sex after baby: Women’s sexual function in the postpartum period. Current Sexual Health Reports, 9, 142–149.

[2] 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.

[3] Rosen, N. O., Bailey, K., & Muise, A. (2017). Degree and direction of sexual desire discrepancy are linked to sexual and relationship satisfac- tion in couples transitioning to parenthood. Journal of Sex Research, 55, 214–225.

[4] Cowan, C. P., & Cowan, P. A. (2000). When partners become parents: The big life change for couples. New York, NY: Basic Books.

[5] American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Washington, DC: Author