How soon after giving birth can you have sex? And what if you don't want to?

“It’s easy to get lost in babyhood and lose the couplehood,” says Laurie Betito, a Montreal-based sexual-wellness expert.

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Your body just made a human. That’s remarkable. Now, as you sort through feeding and sleeping schedules, hormone imbalances and diaper blowouts, your formerly top-shelf sex life might feel hard to reach, way up there on the top shelf.

The standard belief is people should wait six weeks after giving birth before having intercourse. But there are no timers set. There could be small cuts inside the vagina that keep reopening, recovery from a C-section or the birth might have been traumatic. There are hormonal fluctuations that can cause vaginal dryness and discomfort. It can take six months or longer to completely heal. If the parent is nursing, the production of progesterone can dampen desire, as can having a baby attached to their breast for an entire day.

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And then there’s the fatigue.

Dr. Laurie Betito is seen in the studio in this February 2020 file picture.
“There’s joy and there’s stress,” says Montreal-based Laurie Betito, a clinical psychologist with an expertise in sexual wellness. “These things are going to affect sexual desire and intimacy.” Photo by Allen McInnis /Montreal Gazette

“There’s joy and there’s stress,” says Montreal-based Laurie Betito, a clinical psychologist with an expertise in sexual wellness. “These things are going to affect sexual desire and intimacy.”

If there’s pain or discomfort, there might be an avoidance of sexual intercourse. If you’re the one who doesn’t want to have sex, it’s important to talk about how you feel, says Betito, host of the Passion podcast.

“When people are rejected, they feel it’s a rejection of them: ‘Is it me?’ ‘Am I not attractive to you any more?’ They look at themselves rather than try to understand what’s going on. If you’re the one who doesn’t want to have sex, you can say, ‘Listen, I’m exhausted. I can’t wrap my head around that. It’s not you. I love you, you know. Could we just hold each other?’ You want to be able to validate their needs and say that you get it.”

Whether it’s six weeks or six months, Betito hopes couples will be proactive about having sex and reframe intimacy to focus on connection using touch and other forms of intimacy.

“Sometimes the partner who gave birth just needs some physical touch without the expectation of having to perform,” she says. That can mean spooning, touching without penetration, even just lying together naked. It’s OK to say, “I’m exhausted, how about you do all the work and it’s just a quickie today.” If all you have time for is a shower, you can shower together.

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“You have to make an effort to remember that you are in a relationship. It’s easy to get lost in babyhood and lose the couplehood.”

Nobody knows how their body is going to respond to pregnancy, Betito says. There are things they have no control over, like stretch marks and whether their feet grew a size. It’s a body’s natural way of coping with changes.

“And frankly, when I speak to partners, they don’t care. If they do, they’re usually quite self-centred and on-the-surface people,” Betito says. “Generally speaking, it’s the women who worry about their self-image, but the men are not concerned. That’s not what they’re looking at. That’s certainly been my experience in talking to husbands.”

She suggests trying to see yourself through your partner’s eyes. It can take 18 months or longer to lose baby weight, “so if you’re obsessed with the weight, you’re losing sight of being present in the moment. And this is a precious time.”

“If you don’t prioritize yourself to reduce your own stress and your overall well-being, like getting proper sleep, exercising, finding ways to relax, finding ways to regenerate yourself, you get lost. You get lost in the role of motherhood and then you forget yourself. And then you forget your partner.”

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Sharing parenting duties will allow space for that and help partners remain sensitive to each other’s state of mind. Sometimes an issue persists, sexually or otherwise, and couples find it hard to talk about. The conversations become circular and cause fighting. That’s when it’s time to seek professional counselling so the feelings of both parents can be validated, Betito says.

“It’s about getting them on the same page,” she says. “Sometimes you need to ask for help. Sometimes I see people once or twice — it’s not like they need serious therapy. It’s just giving them a few tools to go home and try, and within a few months everything gets back on track — and a few months isn’t that long considering what babyhood is like and what it’s done to your body for nine months.”

If you believe you have postpartum depression, contact your doctor, midwife or call Info-Social at 811, Option 8 for resources.

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