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By Grace Schwenck

This blog is a summary of our published article: Schwenck, G. C., Dawson, S. J., Muise, A., & Rosen, N. O. (2020). A comparison of the sexual well-being of new parents with community couples. Journal of Sexual Medicine, 17(11), 2156-2167. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jsxm.2020.08.011

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.

downward arrow

Photo by Ussama Azam from Unsplash

Indeed, as many as 34% to 58% of new parents experience declines in their sexual well-being (including how frequently they have sex, how satisfied they are with their sex life, their sexual desire, and how distressed they are about aspects of their sexual relationship) in the first year following childbirth [1,2]. These declines have been shown to have important implications for the parents’ relationship, the child’s social and emotional development (e.g., how they interact with other and process their actions), and the family’s overall health and well-being [3,4].

Despite how common sexual declines are in the transition to parenthood for both parents, current research has mostly focused on the partner who gave birth. The research has also focused on one facet of sexual well-being (for example, only sexual desire), and has not included a comparison sample.

What did we want to know?

We aimed to compare the sexual well-being of first-time parent couples in the transition to parenthood (the year following the birth of their child) to community couples not in the transition to parenthood period.

 

What did we do?

Women who gave birth and their partners (n = 99 couples) and control couples (n = 104) completed measures of sexual well-being (e.g., sexual frequency, sexual satisfaction, sexual desire, and sexual distress) in an online survey. Couples in the transition to parenthood completed these surveys at 3-, 6-, and 12-months postpartum. The control couples completed the measures at a single time-point.

What did we find?

• Overall, couples in the transition to parenthood reported lower sexual satisfaction and desire, and higher sexual distress compared to control couples at 3-, 6-, and 12-months postpartum.

• Women who gave birth—but not their partners—experienced persistently lower sexual desire relative to their control counterparts throughout the first year postpartum.

By 1 year postpartum, the differences between couples in the transition to parenthood and control couples became less pronounced—though still significant.

• New parent couples had resumed typical sexual frequency by 6 months postpartum.

 

What does this all mean?

The current results support that sexual well-being is compromised for both women who gave birth and their partners, compared to community couples not in the transition to parenthood, though the differences were larger for women who gave birth. The women who gave birth may have been impacted to a greater degree because of the specific biological and psychosocial changes that a person who gives birth may experience independently from their partner (including hormonal changes related to breastfeeding, trauma related to childbirth, changing identities and roles, etc.; 5].

Importantly, differences in sexual well-being between couples in the transition to parenthood and community couples continued even at 12-months postpartum. These results suggest that the ongoing challenges within new parents’ sexual well-being may not necessarily resolve by the time their baby is one year old and should continue to be discussed with a healthcare professional.

mother and baby laying in bed

Photo by Kevin Liang from Unsplash

References

[1] Ahlborg, T., Dahlöf, L. G., & Hallberg, L. R. M. (2005). Quality of the intimate and sexual relationship in first‐time parents six months after delivery. The Journal of Sex Research, 42(2), 167-174. https://doi.org/10.1080/00224490509552270

[2] Figueiredo, B., Field, T., Diego, M., Hernandez-Reif, M., Deeds, O., & Ascencio, A. (2008). Partner relationships during the transition to parenthood. Journal of Reproductive and Infant Psychology, 26(2), 99-107. https://doi.org/10.1080/02646830701873057

[3] Bodenmann, G., Ledermann, T., & Bradbury, T. N. (2007). Stress, sex, and satisfaction in marriage. Personal Relationships, 14(4), 551-569. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1475-6811.2007.00171.x

[4] Goldberg, J. S., & Carlson, M. J. (2014). Parents’ relationship quality and children’s behavior in stable married and cohabiting families. Journal of Marriage and Family, 76(4), 762-777. https://doi.org/10.1111/jomf.12120

[5] McBride, H. L., & Kwee, J. L. (2017). Sex after baby: Women’s sexual function in the postpartum period. Current Sexual Health Reports, 9(3), 142-149. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11930-017-0116-3

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