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Three’s a crowd

How do parents get their groove back after baby? Dalhousie University researchers are working on it

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When baby makes three the sex life usually gets the boot. Or pegged so far down on the priority list it nearly drops off.

“We kind of knew a child would break or make the marriage stronger,” says new mom Anna, who is using an alias in order to talk comfortably, and publicly, about a very intimate subject.

Anna and her husband Rick had no trouble having sex during her pregnancy. Even the week she was due to deliver their daughter it was all good. Wanting to stick to the rules, they dutifully waited until they got the all-clear from their doctor at the six-week postpartum mark.

“Next [concern] is how soon are we able to have and are we able to have as much sex as we had before?” she says. “It made me concerned that my husband is going in for like six weeks without sex.”

Frequency of sex after baby was the biggest concern of 262 couples surveyed in a new and unique study conducted at Dalhousie University. Natalie Rosen, who runs the Couples and Sexual Health Research
Laboratory, along with two students received a grant from the IWK Health Centre to study the sex lives of first-time parents.

Usually it’s the woman who is put under a microscope examining her sex life post-baby. But this study asked both members of the couple about their concerns and also measured how concerned they were.

“It’s a unique period where we know there are general declines in sexual functioning, sexual desire and relationships in general,” she says. “There’s so many novel stressors going on that a couple has to adapt to, particularly first-time parents where nothing can really prepare you.”

They arranged many of the survey questions around two problems: declines in sexual functioning and impacts on the relationship.

“And who bounces back? That was my big question,” says Rosen.

They found that, frequency aside, men and women are concerned about completely different issues. “The first, incredibly interesting thing we found, was of the 20 concerns we looked at, over 50 per cent of males and females indicated they experienced at least 16 out of the 20 concerns,” says PhD student Hera Schlagintweit. “It’s really showing that these parents have a lot of sexual concerns.”

Body image is a big concern for women, which Anna understands. Pre-baby she was athletic and shapely, she says, but now she’s breastfeeding so she skips the gym to work out at home. “I was a C-cup and I was nice and firm and then my bum was firm and nice,” says. “My husband made a joke that he
married my bum and now it’s gone. I totally lost it.”

But Rick isn’t complaining and body issues aren’t high on his list of concerns. Frequency of sex is a big one and so is the perception of mismatched desire—assuming she’s just not in the mood. An added financial strain is another stress. “Guys don’t change, women do, so I’d say as animals we’re designed to be breeders and women are definitely there for breeding but once they’ve got their new tasks
at hand, the little children, it peters off,” he says, “but it’s slowly coming back.”

The couple says after their daughter turned a year old, they were able to make more time for each other. He says it’s not even the sex but the little signs of affection he misses like a peck on the cheek before
running out the door.

“Guys aren’t a huge amount like that but we do appreciate it when we’ve done the laundry and made supper, and what else did I do today?” he says.

Empathy can go a long way, which is actually another major finding in the study, Rosen says. They measured empathy in two ways: being able to see things from your partner’s perspective (thinking), and the level of empathetic concern for your partner (feeling). She found greater empathy was associated with increased sexual and
relationship satisfaction.

“Making an effort to see things from your partner’s perspective and showing concern for your partner allows the other person to feel cared for, validated and it also might lead to a change of behaviours that might lead to greater sexual and relationship satisfaction,” Rosen says.

There’s no question those cute but stinky bundles of drool shake up a relationship. Anna says they used to have date nights once a week. Now it’s once a month and they are not even date nights but date lunches.

Studies like this one are important because it encourages couples to talk about these changes and make sure their sex life doesn’t get left behind in the dust, she says. “If people are aware, it might save some marriages, some relationships, because it really becomes tough. It really puts a strain on a relationship even if you the most loving couple, which we were and we still are, we had our tough times.”


WHO SPOKE UP?

The survey, which took nearly two years to complete, was done on-line by 262 couples from all over North America but primarily the U.S. They recruited couples that have a baby aged three to 12 months through a number of websites and social media and, thanks to the grant, were able to pay them for their time.

“If we got everyone just from Nova Scotia there would have been a more restrictive sample in terms of it would have been white, a similar socio-economic status, and our results wouldn’t have generalized to a larger population,” Rosen says.

They were looking for couples where the woman had given birth, so no adoptions, because they were looking to study the impact of physical changes. Same-sex couples were included, Schlagintweit says, with three same-sex couples taking the survey.

“With three it’s hard to look at the data because that’s such a small number of couples, and it would have been really cool if we had a larger sample to look more specifically at that group.”

Rosen is submitting the study for publication in academic journals and she says it will be a valuable tool for doctors, midwives, lactation consultants and others who work with expecting couples and new parents.


THE NEW NORMAL

Sexual concerns for new female parents
• Frequency of sex
• Changes of body image—seeing yourself differently as a sexual being.
• Impact of physical recovery from delivery
• Impact of sleep deprivation
• Impact of child rearing duties on time for sexual activities

Sexual concerns for new male parents
• Frequency of sex
• Impact of mood swings on sexual activity
• Impact of breast feeding on breasts
• Mismatch in sexual desire
• Impact of sleep deprivation

 

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