By Lucy Coady
This blog is a summary of our published article: MacKenzie, N. E., Gordon, A. M., Impett, E. A., & Rosen, N. O. (2022). Indirect associations between infant sleep, parental sleep, and sexual well-being in new parent couples. Journal of Family Psychology. https://doi.org/10.1037/fam0001040
New parents’ sexual frequency and desire fluctuate throughout the transition to parenthood (i.e., the first year after childbirth) . Poorer infant and parental sleep are each associated with lower sexual frequency and desire for new parent couples when comparing groups with poorer sleep to groups with better sleep . Researchers have theorized [3, 4] that one factor that can impact couples’ sexual frequency and desire is the change to their sleep patterns based on both their own and their infant’s sleep, though this has yet to be further examined. We examined how parental sleep could indirectly influence the relationship between infant sleep and sexual frequency and sexual desire in couples, both individually and in comparison with other couples, during the first-year postpartum. Could how your baby sleeps indirectly affect your sex life with your partner? We predicted that this could be the case.
What did we do?
In this study, we recruited 203 couples where the mother was pregnant with their first child (18-24 weeks gestation). Couple members individually completed online self-report surveys at 3-, 6-, 9-, and 12- months postpartum. Surveys included questions regarding their infant’s sleep quality, their own sleep quality, sexual frequency (partnered), and their own sexual desire.
What did we find?
We found that when their infant slept poorly so did both the mother and partner, and poorer sleep was linked to lower sexual frequency. Specifically, our results showed that when the mother reported poorer sleep the couple reported less sexual frequency compared to when they had better sleep. When partners (of mothers) reported sleeping poorly, the couple had less sexual frequently compared to couples where the partner slept well.
Comparing the impacts of sleep on sexual desire, the researchers found that when infants slept poorly, this had an indirect impact on parents’ sexual desire since poorer infant sleep resulted in parents reporting worse sleep. For mothers, there was a significant association between their own poorer sleep and their own reports lower sexual desire. When it came to their partners, those who had poorer sleep, had lower sexual desire compared to other partners who slept better. Importantly, how one partner slept did not affect their partner’s sexual desire.
One factor outside of parental and infant sleep that had an impact on sexual frequency and desire was pain during vaginal intercourse. If the mother experienced pain during vaginal intercourse this impacted sexual frequency more than if their infant slept poorly. When it came to sexual desire, both pain during vaginal intercourse and poorer infant sleep were associated with lower sexual desire for the mother.
What does this mean?
These results indicate that new parents can experience fluctuations when it comes to their infant’s sleep, their own sleep, sexual frequency, and sexual desire. These fluctuations occur for both members of the couple (especially for mothers), as well as in comparison to other couples (especially for partners). Since one parent’s sleep is not associated with the other’s sexual desire, the pathway between sleep and desire is specific to each person’s experience.
It is important for both new parents and clinicians to monitor infant and parent sleep levels when couples experience changes to their sexual frequency and desire. Changes in sexual frequency and desire are common in the transition to parenthood [1,5]. Providing information about these changes can offer some reassurance for couples that experience a change in their sex life after having a baby. It is important for new parents to know that changes to sexual frequency and desire are common and these fluctuations are normal and couples adjust over time.
 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. https://doi.org/10.1037/fam0000689
 Afsahri, P., Salehnejad, Z., Hekmat, K., Abedi, P., Fakhri, A., & Haghighizadeh, M. (2018). Do sleeping disorders impair sexual function in married Iranian women of reproductive age? Results from a cross-sectional study. Psychiatry Journal, 2018. https://doi.org/10.1155/2018/1045738
 Sadeh, A., & Anders, T. F. (1993). Infant sleep problems: Origins, assessment, interventions. Infant Mental Health Journal, 14(1), 17–34. https://doi.org/10.1002/1097-0355(199321)14:1<17::AID-IMHJ2280140103>3.0.CO;2-Q
 McDaniel, B. T., & Teti, D. M. (2012). Coparenting quality during the first three months after birth: The role of infant sleep quality. Journal of Family Psychology, 26(6), 886–895. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0030707
 Jawed-Wessel, S., & Sevick, E. (2017). The impact of pregnancy and childbirth on sexual behaviors: A systematic review. Journal of Sex Research, 54(4–5), 411–423. https://doi.org/10.1080/00224499.2016.1274715