2 Ways For New Parents To Overcome The 'Postpartum Sex Slump'

Bringing life into the world is no small feat—here's how to avoid letting it affect your sex life.

Mark Travers, Ph.D.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | April 02, 2024

Becoming first-time parents is a profound life transition triggering complex emotions. While it can be joyful, it also comes with significant challenges that can strain a relationship. The sudden shift in roles and responsibilities coupled with the demands of caring for a newborn often lead to less personal time for partners to connect.

A 2021 study found that one side-effect of becoming parents includes a drop in the couple's sexual well-being. Researchers found that during pregnancy, sexual behavior declines, especially during the third trimester, with perinatal couples experiencing lower desire and sexual satisfaction. Couples face a "sex slump" up to three months postpartum and may only fully resume sexual activity after six months or more.

The physical toll of childbirth, hormonal fluctuations, sleep deprivation and emotional stress can decrease libido and make intimacy unappealing or uncomfortable. A lack of time and privacy for sexual activity and medical advice to abstain postpartum can also leave couples wary of sexual intimacy.

However, with patience, compassion and mutual respect, it is possible for partners to rebuild intimacy as they navigate the complexities of parenthood together.

Here are two ways to overcome the postpartum sex slump as first-time parents.

1. Remember The Power Of Affection

A 2024 study published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships found that attitudes toward touch impact couples in the challenging transition to parenthood.

Researchers found that affectionate behaviors such as touching, caressing and kissing tend to reduce from mid-pregnancy to one year postpartum. The authors suggest that birthing parents may be all "touched out" through caring for an infant or breastfeeding or view affectionate touch as precursor to sexual activity, which they may not be ready for.

However, researchers found that when both partners had more positive attitudes towards touch, viewing it as a way to express affection, cope with stress and regulate difficult emotions during pregnancy, it led to a higher frequency and variety of sexual and affectionate behaviors at three months postpartum.

"Affectionate touch is an important way through which partners communicate support, availability and intimacy. Partners who believe that touch helps them regulate difficult emotions might foster an environment in which gestational parents also feel more understood and cared for and who, in turn, are more likely to maintain affectionate behaviors during pregnancy," the researchers explain.

It is essential for couples to turn towards each other in the very period that tends to drive them apart and prioritize intimacy and emotional closeness. Communicating openly about needs, desires and concerns regarding intimacy can foster understanding and empathy, bringing them closer.

First-time parents can also incorporate more affectionate touch by prioritizing small moments of physical closeness throughout the day, such as hugs, kisses and hand-holding, even amidst caring for their newborn.

Couples can explore non-sexual forms of intimacy, such as cuddling, massages and meaningful conversations to maintain their connection, without the pressure of sexual activity. Scheduling regular date nights or alone time away from the baby can also help rekindle romance.

Finally, seeking support from trusted friends and family members can lighten the load, allowing couples to focus on the relationship as well as being parents. A therapist or counselor specializing in postpartum challenges can also provide reassurance and guide partners through rebuilding their sexual connection when both feel ready.

2. Avoid Romantic Catastrophizing

Another 2024 study found that "romantic catastrophizing" can affect new parents' sexual well-being. Romantic catastrophizing refers to a tendency to magnify or exaggerate potential problems or negative outcomes in relationships. It involves imagining or predicting worst-case scenarios, often without sufficient evidence or justification, leading to feelings of increased helplessness, anxiety, insecurity or dissatisfaction within the relationship.

A catastrophizing mindset can lead individuals to perceive minor issues as insurmountable. One may start to assume the worst about a partner's actions or intentions, anticipating relationship failure based on small disagreements or constantly worrying about potential betrayal or heartbreak.

First time parents usually undergo a higher number of relationship conflicts during the perinatal period and their responses to these moments are vital to the well-being of the relationship.

Researchers found that if either partner responds to interpersonal conflicts with romantic catastrophizing, it can make them magnify relationship challenges such as their sexual difficulties. They found that greater relationship catastrophizing was in turn associated with greater sexual distress and lower levels of sexual satisfaction and desire.

A 2024 study also found that feelings of warmth and closeness decline when a partner recalls relationship conflicts, especially when these are considered personally significant and the partners relied on self-distraction to regulate their emotions during the conflict.

In contrast, sexual satisfaction is often revived when partners perceive lower levels of stress in one another. Research shows that a couple's capacity to effectively deal with stress together is associated with higher levels of relational and sexual satisfaction, highlighting the importance of working together as a team to nurture the relationship.

Here are a few ways to unlearn romantic catastrophizing.

  • Thought-challenging. Challenge negative thoughts by questioning their validity and considering alternative perspectives.
  • Setting realistic expectations. Understanding that changes in sexual frequency and desire are common during the perinatal period can alleviate pressure and reduce anxiety that the relationship is failing.
  • Practicing mindfulness. Staying present in the moment can help prevent rumination on worst-case scenarios and help couples slow down enough to process their emotions.
  • Focusing on love. Reminding oneself of positive aspects of the relationship and what has been going well can counteract catastrophizing.
  • Seeking professional support. Mental health professionals can provide valuable tools for managing anxious thoughts, relationship stress and promoting healthier relationship dynamics.

In the whirlwind of becoming first-time parents, it's crucial to remember that nurturing your relationship is as essential as caring for your newborn. It's imperative to give each other the time and space to heal and adjust after childbirth, without any pressure to resume sexual activity prematurely. With time and intentional efforts to reconnect, new parents can navigate the postpartum period with greater resilience and better preserve their connection.

Worried about your postpartum challenges turning into a full-blown burnout? Take the Parental Burnout Assessment to gain clarity.

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