Is Your Sex Life Over?
I remember the exact moment when I thought breastfeeding had ruined my sex life forever.
It was late at night, and our 4-month-old son was up for his last call at the milk bar. My husband discovered us in the rocking chair just as the baby dozed off. "Oh boy," he said, staring at my breasts with a wolfish grin. "Hope I'm next in line."
"Ha. You wish."
He only smiled more. "I sure do. Here. Let me put the baby down so we can go to bed."
At that, I started to cry.
"What?" my husband asked, alarmed. "What did I say now?"
What had he said? Only that he wanted me to come to bed. But, by "bed," my husband didn't mean "sleep," and I didn't want sex. I didn't even want to be touched. I especially didn't want to put my baby down only to have my husband's mouth on my breasts. And this thought -- my sex life was over! -- made me cry even harder.
Of course it wasn't. But nursing definitely stalled my libido, and I had a lot to learn about breastfeeding and sex. I was unprepared for all the changes, physical and mental. "It's a normal part of our adjustment to struggle with our sexual identities during this time," says Anne Semans, coauthor of Sexy Mamas (Inner Ocean Publishing, 2004). "Breastfeeding brings out all sorts of insecurities, control issues, and excuses not to be intimate for both mothers and fathers." But don't start sleeping in separate bedrooms yet. Your sex life may change, but it's far from over. Read on for ways to adapt your sex life to your new body, and to your new role as a mother.
You don't need anyone to tell you how radically your body's form and function have changed. A few days after childbirth, your breasts become so filled with milk, you may feel like someone has replaced them with a couple of unripe grapefruits. Not only do they often hurt, but they also look pretty bizarre. Grace Mulroney of Allentown, Pennsylvania recalls, "My engorged breasts were more ridiculous than Pamela Anderson's were before she decided to have those implants removed."
To add to the discomfort, during the first months of nursing, your hormones will be in an uproar and your nipples will get so much action they'll probably sting. Even if you had any desire to be fondled, it's likely your breasts will leak milk when your husband touches you.
This combination poses a vexing sexual dilemma. Here you are with a delightfully alluring bosom, with no interest in having your husband touch it.
What's more, breastfeeding suppresses ovarian estrogen production, says Cathy Winks, the other Sexy Mamas coauthor, "and this decrease in estrogen can lead to less vaginal lubrication. Vaginal dryness can make having sex uncomfortable even after you've completely healed from soreness, childbirth stitches, or tears."
So how do you make love with a whole new body? Until your breasts adjust to nursing, "it's perfectly okay to offer your husband a 'look but don't touch' rule," suggests Semans. Some couples even find that putting breasts off-limits leads to new erotic thrills. For instance, try making love sitting astride him while he takes advantage of the view. Or encourage him to masturbate while looking at your bare breasts, and you can put a vibrator to good use at the same time.
To overcome vaginal dryness, keep a tube of lubricant handy, and you can cut back on milk baths if you make love when your breasts are less full after nursing or pumping. Partners who feel comfortable with nursing may even find creative ways of incorporating breast milk into lovemaking, perhaps by helping you hand-express milk to avoid leaking, or using the milk for extra lubrication when your vagina is dry.
Beyond the physical discomforts, many couples must struggle even harder to overcome the emotional hurdles brought on by nursing.
"I had always thought of my breasts as an aesthetically pleasing part of my body," admits Angelica Farnham of Brooklyn, New York, whose daughter is now 6 months old. "But when I started nursing, I found myself manipulating them so much they seemed less like a source of pleasure than a huge pair of faucets that needed constant maintenance. My husband wanted to touch my breasts but I didn't want him to. I thought they were horrifying."
At the other end of the emotional spectrum, you may love your new breasts and the sensuality of nursing, but worry that your feelings are inappropriate. Relax. "It's absolutely normal. After all, this is an erogenous part of your body," notes Semans.
Then there are women who get upset if their husbands want to suck on their nipples. Some are afraid of transmitting husband-to-baby germs; others have trouble reconciling that their breasts are both erotic and functional. "I thought all of the changes in my wife's body during nursing were really cool," says Duke Evans of Washington, D.C., "and I really loved watching her breastfeed. I even wanted to taste my wife's breast milk, but she wouldn't let me."
If your partner takes delight -- erotic or otherwise -- in watching you breastfeed, try accepting his joy, or even reveling in it if you can. "If there aren't these little changes in the sex act, making love loses some of the interesting differences that nature provides," says Carol Huotari, manager of the Center for Breastfeeding Information at La Leche League.
That's a positive way of looking at things, but it's easier said than done. With so much of your attention and energy -- to mention milk -- flowing toward this new tiny person in your life, you may begin to feel resentful; if nourishing the baby is exclusively your job, how can you meet all of your husband's needs and still feel even vaguely human yourself? These feelings can lead to a sexual standoff that may seem insurmountable. "All I wanted was five minutes where someone didn't need something from me," says Mulroney, who nursed her son, now 2 years old, for 9 months.
Not to mention the fact that you might simply be tired of being touched. "You may feel like your body doesn't belong to you at all," explains Margaret Howard, PhD, director of the Postpartum Disorders Day Hospital at Women & Infants Hospital in Providence, Rhode Island. "You've completely given up your body for your baby and don't want to do it again for your husband."
So how can you navigate your way back toward sexual intimacy now that you're nursing? Support -- from friends, relatives, or a nursing group at the local hospital -- is key, as is keeping your husband in the emotional loop by explaining how you feel.
"The most important thing partners can do is lay their cards on the table," says Semans. If you unveil all of your insecurities -- like feeling guilty about being hot in bed with a baby in the house, or sad because you don't feel the same sexual desires you once did -- you may discover that your partner is just as stressed about his scary new role as dad and provider, or grieving his loss of status between the sheets. "Your husband wants to be close to you, and your baby will do better if the two of you maintain a deep sense of intimacy," adds Huotari. How you handle these conflicts now can define your future relationship -- as lovers and as parents.
Think hard about what you need, and listen just as hard when your husband talks about his own expectations and vulnerabilities. The point isn't to judge your partner's feelings, or for him to judge yours, but for each of you to express your needs and try to meet them as generously as possible. Whether you want a nap, help with the dishes, or a night at the movies with your girlfriends, tell your husband you'd like him to step in. Taking care of yourself is the first step toward feeling sexual again -- and loving -- toward him.
Encourage your husband to express his desires too. If he desperately wants sex but you're nearly in a coma the minute your head hits that pillow, find a position that pleases him without taxing your energy. He'll appreciate you respecting his sexual needs as much as you appreciate him respecting yours. Or if what your partner misses most is your undivided attention at dinner, start lining up sitters for regular nights away from the baby. Involve your husband as much as possible in the baby's care, "and be generous with praise when your husband helps you," says Huotari. That way, he'll gain confidence in himself as a father and bond more with the baby.
Is there a silver lining to all of this hard work? You bet. Because making love as a nursing mom demands that the two of you coordinate your needs and talk about tough issues like sensuality, parenting responsibilities, and time demands, "it can bring your relationship to a different, deeper level," says Howard, "mixing eroticism with the deepest kind of love."
Holly Robinson is a freelance writer living outside of Boston.
All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.
Originally published in American Baby magazine, May 2004.