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Breastfeeding and Sexuality

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Updated August 06, 2013

Until recently there was very little research on how breastfeeding may impact someones experience of sexuality or sexual activity. Since 2000 there have been several studies but they offer conflicting results. Some studies find that people who breastfeed are less interested in sex after having a baby, and take longer to resume sexual activity. Some studies find the opposite, that arousal and sexual activity are higher for those who breastfeed. And - drum roll please - other studies find no significant difference.

Understanding different experiences of breastfeeding and sexuality doesn't need to be about figuring out the way it 'should' be, or trying to construct a 'normal' experience. Instead what seems important is that we all have access to information about the different ways that breastfeeding could impact our sexual feelings and sex lives. With that in mind, here is some of what we know:

Hormonal and Physical Changes Related to Breastfeeding

Breastfeeding is associated with increases in prolactin and oxytocin, and decreases in estrogen all of which can have varied impacts on desire, arousal, and, orgasm

Decreased estrogen usually causes vaginal dryness which can make some sexual behaviors painful, and can also be interpreted as a lack of desire or arousal, which can actually impact the extent to which one feels turned on or interested in sex.

Because much of the research focuses narrowly on intercourse, one of the impacts that has been documented well is a connection between breastfeeding and dyspareunia, or painful intercourse. For example one study of 615 women found that women who were breastfeeding were four times more likely to experience pain during intercourse (it's interesting to note that the same study found that breastfeeding women started sexual activity sooner than women who were not breastfeeding). Physical causes of dyspareunia may include vaginal dryness, healing of the perineum or abdomen after vaginal or cesarean birth.

Changes in breast size, tenderness, and breast/nipple sensitivity can all have an impact on how one feels about ones body. If you are someone who likes big breasts you might be happy with the change, but if you don't, the change may leave you feeling worse about your body and less interested in touching yourself or having others touch you. These changes may mean that you don't like the same kind of stimulation as before, and partners who haven't had the experience of such a fast change in ones body could be confused, and feel rejected, if you don't have a conversation about the changes and how you are reacting to them.

It is common for milk to leak during arousal and sex play. This change may not come with any physical sensation, but some people can be embarrassed or uncomfortable with the presence of breast milk during sex.

The influence of oxytocin has been linked to erotic feelings during breastfeeding. Because it is sometimes misunderstood as inappropriate (or even deviant) some people can respond to the experience by turning off sex altogether.

What You Can Do:

  • Remembering that sex is more than intercourse, is key to re-exploring your sexuality and having sex while you are breastfeeding.
  • Talking with a health care provider about your experience of breastfeeding and a changed body is a great place to start.
  • Vaginal dryness is often easily resolved by using a high quality personal lubricant.
  • If you have a partner and want or need to stop engaging in sex play, or change up what you want to do, you're going to have to talk about sex at some point. Hoping they'll get the hint is not a long term strategy!
  • If you are embarrassed by milk leaking or other parts of your body, you can try to work on changing your feelings about your body. But if you'd like to have sex, and simply want to cover up, or change the rules about sex for a period of time, that's your right too.

Changes in How You Feel In Your Body and About Your Body

All of the above changes may be more or less visible to you or to people around you. But change is also happening in the way you think and feel about your body. The way others see you will change. You may notice a difference in the way you are being checked out by others (where once there were flirtatious glances, now there may be looks of concern, empathy, annoyance. Your own ideas about what it is to be a parent and to breastfeed will also influence how you are feeling about your body and yourself as a sexual being at this time. All of this is in the mix, and when you think about everything that is happening, it shouldn't come as a surprise if you experience changes in sexual feelings and activities.

What You Can Do:

  • Having community, friends or family members, who are there to listen and not judge can help give you space to think out how you're feeling and become aware of how your feelings may be affecting your actions.
  • Give yourself plenty of breaks. You just gave birth and now you are, essentially, supporting another life. Now may not be the time for major personal introspection and growth. So if you can figure out what you need in the moment, try to ask for it and see if you can get it.
  • Remember that how we feel about our bodies doesn't just come from inside us. We all live in an ableist world, which among other things means that we are swimming in messages about what good bodies and bad bodies are. If you're feeling down, try not to make it worse by taking on all the responsibility for it.

Fatigue

In one of the first studies that asked people who are breastfeeding about sexuality, the most common reason given for a decrease in sexual activity after the birth of a child was fatigue. Fatigue can impact sexual desire, sexual self-image, and of course sexual activity, as you may just be too tired to do it.

What You Can Do:

  • Being tired is a pretty human response to having a newborn baby. If you still want sex and feel too tired by the end of the day you can try to time sex for when you feel most energetic.
  • Changing your idea of what constitutes sex can also help. Forget about an hour long, intense lusty scene. It may be that sex when you're breastfeeding looks more like a massage, or slow make out session.
  • Remember that any long term sexual relationship will have ups and downs and, if it helps, think about this time as one of the downs.

Changes in Relationship Dynamics

If you're in a relationship, having a new tiny person enter the relationship will have an impact on the dynamics of your relationship, including the sexual parts. For many people, breastfeeding creates a particularly intimate and unique relationship between parent and child, and a partner who is not breastfeeding can feel left out, and confused about their feelings (after all, society tells us that a new baby is a gift and we should always be happy about it, otherwise we're terrible people). The way that work gets divided up in the relationship (who does more cleaning, or dealing with family, or diaper changes, or waking up several times a night) will inevitably have an effect on how sex gets played out (or not). It can also be confusing for the adult partners to figure out where sex fits into a new family dynamic. This can happen as soon as the baby comes home (and of course it continues until they leave home).

What You Can Do:

  • If you're reading this and you already have the baby, it's too late for tip number one, which is to talk about this stuff before the baby comes home. Talk about it even before you get pregnant. You won't be able to figure much out, since there are so man "what ifs" but figuring out how to talk, and establishing that it's okay to talk, will help a lot later on.
  • If it's possible, take some time for just you and your partner. It might mean asking a friend or family member to come over and hang out in another room for an hour with your baby so you can lie in bed together and just connect (without necessarily having sex). Honoring the relationship you have and the way it's changing is much better than pretending that everything is always great, and that having a baby doesn't also mean a little bit of loss.
  • If the relationship dynamics are making every day difficult, seeing a counselor or therapist may be recommended. Many good therapists will have no problem with you bringing a baby to your sessions (or breastfeeding during the sessions).

Social Expectations

In the West there is such an emphasis on small nuclear families, particularly when a couple has a baby. We can come to feel like a self-contained unit, and forget that we are a unit only in relation to others and the society we are in. Social expectations can have a big impact on our sexuality and sex lives in sometimes subtle ways.

Breasts take up a lot of space in the public imagination, and women in particular will be aware of the sexualization of their breasts. When the breasts change in function and size, some women will experience a change in social attitudes as they breastfeed, particularly when they breastfeed in public, and these attitudes can also have an impact on the way a woman feels about herself sexually.

There are also social expectations about who is responsible for getting sex going again. One article that reviewed 30 years of sexual advice literature found that much of it tells women they are responsible for pleasing their partners in order to resume a healthy sex life. Another study which asked women about their experience found that many felt pressured from partners to start having intercourse.

What You Can Do:

  • You can start by naming social expectations and stereotypes when you experience them. Staying silent can not only lead to bottling feelings up, but also to self-doubt and the feeling that it really is your responsibility or fault.
  • Be clear with partners about consent. No one should be pressured into having sex. That doesn't mean that we don't sometimes satisfy our partner even if we aren't in the mood, but when we do that, it needs to be our choice.
  • If you identify as heterosexual, and you are in a straight relationship, you may not have a lot of experience thinking through social expectations. One way to being to learn this is to learn from the experience of queer parents who in countless ways have to resist social expectations in order to feel good about being the parents they are, and the parents they want to be.

Read more:

Sources:

Avery, M.D., Duckett, L., Frantzich, C.R. “The Experience of Sexuality During Breastfeeding Among Primiparous Women.” Journal of Midwifery and Women’s Health Vol. 45, No. 3 (2000): 227-236.

Canadian Family Physician: Breastfeeding and Sexuality Immediately Post Partum, .

Convery, K.M. & Spatz, D.L. "Sexuality & Breastfeeding: What Do You Know?" American Journal of Maternal Child Nursing Vol. 34, No. 4 (2009): 218-223.

Signorello, L. B., Harlow, B. L., Chekos, A. K., & Repke, J.T. "Post-Partum Sexual Functioning and its Relationship to Perineal Trauma: A Retrospective Cohort Study of Primiparous Women" American Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology Vol. 184, No. 5. (2001): 881-890.

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