Dear Diary, how can I keep my relationship and sex-life satisfying post-baby?: Sexual intimacy in first-time mothers

By Eva Cohen

This blog is a summary of our lab’s published article: Rosen, N. O., Williams, L., Vannier, S. A., & Mackinnon, S. P. (2020). Sexual Intimacy in First-Time Mothers: Associations with Sexual and Relationship Satisfaction Across Three Waves. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 49(8), 2849-2861.

Many mothers experience mental and physical changes after having a child. These include sleep disruptions, mood changes, and more. Additionally, many new mothers report negative changes to their sexuality and intimate relationships, [1] which are often unexpected and distressing. [2] Researchers have a good grasp of how pregnancy can affect a new mother’s sexual and relationship satisfaction. For instance, more depressive symptoms are associated with lower sexual satisfaction. [3] However, there is a lack of research examining the factors that could protect new mothers from experiencing a decline in their sexual and relationship satisfaction during this period.

What did we want to know?

Our aim was to determine whether intimacy in a sexual context (sexual intimacy) served as a protective factor for new mothers’ sexual and relationship satisfaction across the first 12 months postpartum.

In the study, we defined sexual intimacy as including two key components in the context of the sexual relationship: (1) disclosure of intimate thoughts and feelings and (2) perceived partner responsiveness (PPR)—the extent to which a person perceives their partner to be accepting, understanding, and validating. We also wanted to know whether disclosure or PPR came first in predicting greater sexual and relationship satisfaction.

What did we do?

171 first-time mothers were recruited at 18-25 weeks of pregnancy. Participants completed a questionnaire at four separate waves of data collection: 18-25 weeks pregnant, 3 months postpartum, 6 months postpartum, and 12 months postpartum.  The questionnaires measured sexual intimacy—sexual disclosure and perceived partner responsiveness—sexual satisfaction, and relationship satisfaction. Other inclusion criteria included being 18 years of age or older, in a romantic relationship, and expecting only one child.

What did we expect?

We made two key hypotheses:

  1. Greater sexual disclosure and perceived partner responsiveness at one wave (i.e., 3- or 6-months postpartum) would predict increases in sexual and relationship satisfaction at the next wave.
  2. Greater perceived partner responsiveness would lead to greater disclosure, and vice versa, which would in turn lead to higher sexual and relationship satisfaction at the next wave.

What did we find?

We found that greater levels of PPR in a sexual context was an important predictor of higher levels of sexual and relationship satisfaction at the subsequent wave. However, greater sexual disclosure was not linked to sexual and relationship satisfaction. Additionally, there was no reciprocal relationship between PPR and disclosure, such that one variable did not predict increases in the other in the pathway toward changes in sexual and relationship satisfaction.


What does this all mean?

Feeling understood, cared for, and validated by a partner in the context of one’s sexual relationship is an important predictor of increased levels of sexual and relationship satisfaction in first-time mothers during the first year postpartum. It may be useful to help new parents develop skills—verbal or non-verbal, during or outside of sexual activity—that focus on increasing PPR. For example, new parents might focus on develop skills such as acceptance, validation, and reflective listening in the context of sexual relationships. [4] You can find tips for improving your sexual communication in ways that are likely to increase PPR on our website:

Why does it matter?

Determining what can help new mothers maintain their sexual and relationship satisfaction throughout the first year of parenthood may improve interventions that are designed to help them manage this transition. Improving the sexual and relationship satisfaction of new parent couples may help families thrive during this exciting, but often challenging period in their lives.


[1] Doss, B. D., & Rhoades, G. K. (2017). The transition to parenthood: Impact on couples’ romantic relationships. Current Opinion in Psychology. 13, 25-28.

[2] Guerra-Reyes, L., Christie, V. M., Prabhakar, A., & Siek, K. A. (2017). Mind the gap: Assessing the disconnect between postpartum health information desired and health information received. Women’s Health Issues, 27(2), 167-173.

[3] Chivers, M. L., Pittini, R., Grigoriadis, S., Villegas, L., & Ross, L. E. (2011). The relationship between sexual functioning and depressive symptomatology in postpartum women: A pilot study. Journal of Sexual Medicine, 8, 792-799.

[4] Reis, H. T. (2012). Perceived partner responsiveness as an organizing theme for the study of relationships and well being. In L. Campbell & T. J. Loving (Eds.), Interdisciplinary research on close relationships: The case for integration (pp. 27-52). Washington, DD: American Psychological Association.