Welcoming a baby is an exciting, terrifying and life-changing time, so if you’re feeling all the emotions rest assured - you’re not alone.
Between finding the perfect name, choosing a pram, and potentially becoming more acquainted with the toilet bowl (morning sickness sucks), there’s a lot to think about.
But while your friends and family might have opinions about the local childcare centre, or which car seat you should buy, they’re less likely to know if you can still use your vibrator, (you totally can!) or tell you about the time their partner accidentally tasted some breastmilk during sex (it happens).
That’s why we’re going to take some of the mystery out of pregnancy and postpartum sex - the weird, the wonderful, and the things they might not mention at your antenatal classes.
Is sex during pregnancy safe?
To begin with, it’s important to note that every pregnancy is different. Expectant parents should consult with their obstetrician or midwife if they have any concerns at all and follow any specific directions given to them. Remember - when it comes to pregnancy and the health of your baby, there are no silly questions and there’s nothing your doctor hasn’t heard before.
According to the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RANZCOG), the good news is that in low-risk pregnancies, sex during pregnancy is safe. Research has shown that sexual activity is unlikely to be associated with preterm birth or other adverse outcomes.
That said, it’s common for expectant parents to feel anxious about having sex during pregnancy. Can the baby hear us? Will it cause miscarriage? One study of expectant fathers (most research is overwhelming conducted on heterosexual couples) found that 80 per cent of dads reported fear of hurting the baby as the main reason preventing them from having sex with their partner.
Couples therapist and sexologist Isiah Mckimmie explains that if you’re comfortable and haven’t received medical advice to abstain from sex then go for it. In fact, all the usual benefits we get from sex can apply during pregnancy too. “Oxytocin, known as the bonding hormone, will help you and your partner feel closely connected to each other. Sex also has analgesic properties so it can help reduce pain and help you relax. It can also help your mood.”
In fact, Mckimmie says pregnancy sex can be quite liberating and fun.
“For couples, they’re not worried about getting pregnant and they don’t have the stress of ‘we have to do this so we can get pregnant.’It can be really carefree sex.”
Asked to abstain? Here’s why:
While it’s outside of the scope of this guide, according to RANZCOG there are some circumstances in which you may be advised to abstain from sex during pregnancy. These include women at risk of preterm birth or antepartum haemorrhage because of placenta praevia. Always follow your doctor’s advice and seek clarification if there’s anything you’re unsure about.
Safe sex during pregnancy
While you might not be switching positions or swinging from the chandeliers, many women find that as their belly grows, spooning or doggy style are the most comfortable ways to have sex and won’t put pressure on their tummy.
In fact, one study of expectant parents found that women were most likely to choose the “spoons position”, followed by cowgirl and doggy style.
Basically, it’s about trial and error - and having a sense of humour.
“Don’t be afraid to use cushions and props to help you find a comfortable position,” Mckimmie says.
While it’s safe for partners to engage in oral sex it’s important to never blow air into the vagina. This can cause a rare pregnancy complication called venous air embolism, which in some cases can be fatal to both mum and baby.
As for anal sex, if you’re unlucky enough to experience haemorrhoids, a common pregnancy side-effect, it’s probably not high on your list of priorities.
Anal sex can irritate haemorrhoids and fissures (tiny tears in the anus from constipation), which is about as comfortable as it sounds. For safe anal sex while expecting, never switch to vaginal sex immediately after anal without changing condoms or washing off the penis. (The same goes for vibrators and other devices). Use plenty of lube and stop if you feel any pain or discomfort.
Speaking of devices, there’s no need to pack away your wands, rabbits or plugs during pregnancy either. Dildos, vibrators and other devices are generally safe to use while you’re expecting - just make sure they’re cleaned thoroughly.
BDSM during pregnancy:
If you’re familiar with the Fifty Shades franchise, then you’ll know that the third and final film involves a pregnant Ana participating in BDSM with her husband Christian Grey. But is BDSM during pregnancy safe? The answer, of course, is - it depends.
BDSM includes a number of sex practices including bondage and discipline, dominance and submission or sadism and masochism.
“It’s really about a woman’s comfort,” Mckimmie says, adding that when it comes to BDSM it’s similar to how we might approach exercise during pregnancy. “If a woman doesn’t feel safe or she might be feeling emotionally vulnerable or her body is changing it might not be the right time for her to try new and adventurous things. But if BDSM is part of a couple’s routine then go ahead.”
There are some caveats, however. “If there are positions that are going to hurt you or compromise you, don’t try those,” Mckimmie says. “You might have to adapt your repertoire to something a bit more gentle. Making sure you both feel really comfortable is the priority.”
Hopefully it’s common sense but choking is a definite no-no. Tying rope around the belly or using floggers on the abdomen must also be avoided. And, if your rings are feeling tighter (hello pregnancy swelling!) the same might apply if you’re using handcuffs.
As sexually transmitted infections can be dangerous to your baby, if you’re not in a monogamous relationship or if you have sex with another partner during your pregnancy you should always use a condom.
Where did my libido go? / I’ve never been so horny in my life.
Many couples are surprised at just how much their sex life changes in the lead up to the delivery. According to research published in 2019 in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, for many women, desire for sex decreases in the first trimester primarily due to nausea and fatigue, and increases during the second trimester when energy levels are higher, before falling again in the months and weeks before birth.
As well as hormones, your sex drive during pregnancy can also be affected by breast soreness, (yes they’re huge, no you can’t touch them), antenatal anxiety or depression, and body image concerns due to your changing shape. While some women love the extra curves that can come with pregnancy, many struggle with not feeling “sexy” and worry their partner no longer finds their body attractive.
Psychologist Dr Nicole Highet of the Centre of Perinatal Excellence (COPE), says that too often we can place unrealistic pressures on ourselves around how we should look during pregnancy.
“It’s helpful to keep in mind and appreciate the amazing ability of your body to create a little person,” she says, adding that this can help keep things in perspective and help place the focus on the positives of your changing shape.
Whether you can’t get enough sex or you’re wondering if you’ll ever feel like it again, it’s important to keep communicating with your partner about how you’re feeling.
“Pregnancy can really affect people’s libido quite differently,” Mckimmie explains, adding that all of the different reactions are “normal”. “What becomes really important, like anything to do with sex, is how couples manage it together. How they talk about it and how they understand and try to accommodate one another’s needs.”
According to McKimmie, we often don’t talk about motherhood and sexuality together. “There’s a huge dichotomy,” she says. In fact there’s research that suggests the more sexual a woman is perceived to be, the less she is perceived to be a good mother.
“For a lot of women they’re really impacted by that because mother guilt is very real. Often they subconsciously shut off that sexual side of themselves, closing that part of themselves down in order to focus on raising their child.” And while Mckimmie notes that this is absolutely necessary for a period of time after the baby arrives, “it’s also really important to our children’s wellbeing that their parents have a wonderful loving relationship - and that includes a sexual relationship.”
Mckimmie says expectant parents can begin to prepare themselves - and their relationship - during the pregnancy. “Really educate yourself on what to expect,” she says, adding that many couples feel quite frustrated with the lack of information, particularly on how parenthood will impact their sex life.
“It’s a really important part of your relationship and a really valid part of your relationship,” she says. “Do the groundwork and strengthen your relationship as much as you can before going through it because that will also support your baby to have the best start to life possible.”
Can sex induce labour?
If you’re waddling towards your due date or still waiting patiently for bub to arrive, chances are you’ve been given a whole lot of advice about how to evict your little womb mate. This usually includes eating spicy curries, going for long walks, consuming fancy tea, as well as nipple stimulation and having sex.
The theory behind this is sound - semen contains prostaglandin, which is used in synthetic form to induce labour. Meanwhile, orgasms can also trigger uterine contractions.
The scientific evidence, however, is lacking. One randomised study published in the British Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology (BJOG), found no differences in the timing of delivery between women who had sex near their due date and those who did not.
“Human pregnancy has to be robust to a little adventure like intercourse and unfortunately for our purpose, it seems pretty robust to the very end,” said lead author Dr Tan Peng Chiong in a statement at the time.
That said, if you have the energy and can find a position that works for you, it’s certainly worth a try.
Let’s talk about sex (post) baby
When you’re leaking, scarred, torn, possibly recovering from a traumatic birth and trying to work out how to look after a tiny person, sex is quite possibly the last thing on your mind. In fact, as the shock of parenthood hits, you may be avoiding prolonged eye contact with your partner in case you accidentally make another baby. Throw in sleep-deprivation, a body you don’t recognise and sore, sensitive boobs... it’s no wonder sex takes a backseat after bringing bub home.
“There are hormonal changes immediately postpartum,” McKimmie notes, adding that breastfeeding can also affect how a woman lubricates. “Often women are also adjusting to their bodies. Suddenly they have a small human being who needs to be touched all the time. Their breasts aren’t their own anymore.”
While couples are usually given the go ahead to resume sex following the six week check-up, for many new parents it can be months before they’re ready to do anything in bed besides sleep (if you’re lucky). Whether you’re raring to go after receiving the green light from your doctor or it takes you six months (or longer) to find your mojo again, it’s important to know that you’re not alone.
What’s “normal” is what feels right to you and will depend on a number of different factors. These include how you gave birth, your recovery post-delivery, your cultural background, sleep-deprivation and whether you’re breastfeeding.
“Many parents have significantly less desire to have sex in the months after having a baby,” says psychologist Dr Nicole Highet of the Centre of Perinatal Excellence (COPE). Dr Highet says some mums report feeling “touched out” from their baby, and describe that they now crave “personal space instead of physical affection or sexual intimacy.”
According to Dr Highet, postnatal depression and anxiety, which can affect both men and women, can also impact your libido as can medications used to treat these conditions.
“It doesn’t matter who you are—even if you’re a sexy R&B crooner or an ex–swimsuit model, you’re just tired! We still have that passion for each other, but are we doing it randomly in a dressing room? No! We’ll get back into it again.” Chrissy Teigen, Women’s Health.
Six weeks is a guideline - not a deadline
One study of Australian mums found that 65 per cent of women had attempted vaginal sex by eight weeks post partum, increasing to 78 per cent by 12 weeks and 94 per cent by six months. And women who had a cesarean section, perineal tear, or episiotomy took longer to jump back into bed.
Just like pregnancy sex, finding the right position after having a baby will probably take some trial and error. If you’re terrified of penetrative sex - trust us, you’re not the only one! So take it slow with fingers and tongues until you’re ready.
Many women find being on top means they can control the depth and pace, while others find lying on their side is the most comfortable, particularly after a C-section. Do what feels right for you and speak to your doctor if you’re concerned about pain.
Hormonal changes while breastfeeding, (high prolactin levels) as well as low estrogen levels postpartum, can also result in vaginal dryness. So, when you’re ready to start having sex again, remember to use plenty of lube.
If you’re breastfeeding, don’t be surprised if you leak milk when you have an orgasm. You can try expressing or feeding your baby before sex if you’re worried about this otherwise, just bring your sense of humour - and maybe a towel!
And though it might not be something you’ll read about on your average parenting blog, some women describe breastfeeding as “sensual” or even “erotic”. While this can lead to feelings of guilt for some new mums and even result in deciding to stop breastfeeding, research shows that while it might not be a common experience, it’s quite normal.
“I have heard of quite a number of couples who’ve found the breastfeeding experience quite erotic,” Mckimmie says. “We also know that women can experience orgasms during child-birth.” (Yep really!) “All of that is totally normal.”
It’s not uncommon for new parents to feel pushed away, rejected or even to resent the baby for the attention they’re receiving.
“We do often focus on how difficult [the postnatal period] is for women, but often partners of women have their own challenges during that time too,” Mckimmie says. “As much as you can, it’s about taking it on as a team … Try to hold in mind that the relationship is also important. This might not be having penetrative sex but still finding ways, as much as you can in those crazy early days, to connect and be physical that still feel OK.”
Dr Highet says it’s helpful to discuss any sexual frustration with your partner, so you can understand the other’s perspective. “Find replacements for sex so that you continue to connect with your partner and preserve a close relationship,” she notes. “Even just taking ten minutes to sit down with your partner and share what is happening, and how you are both feeling can make a real difference.”
And while women are often concerned about their bodies post-baby, particularly in today’s “bounce back” society, Mckimmie says we really don’t need to be anxious.
“Women are often very worried about how their bodies have changed - and their partners are not,” Mckimmie adds. “Partners are not worried about how their genitals have changed, or how their bodies have changed. For the most part, it’s really the women who are most concerned about that. But their partner’s desire for them generally hasn’t changed.”
That’s right, we’re still sexy - maternity bras, stretch marks and all.