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Fatigue and stress are big influences on low sexual desire in co-parents, study finds

Couples experience ups and downs of arousal together after baby's birth

But parenthood doesn't have to signal the end of your love life, Ian Kerner says

Editor’s Note: Ian Kerner, a sexuality counselor and New York Times best-selling author, writes about sex and relationships for CNN Health. Read more from him on his website, Good In Bed.

(CNN) —  

Women may be the ones to physically go through pregnancy and childbirth, but they’re not alone in the experience. From phantom pains to “sympathy” weight gain, partners of pregnant women can develop some of the physical symptoms of pregnancy. Now, a recent study suggests that these partners may undergo the same shifts in sexuality as new mothers do.

The study, published in August issue of The Journal of Sexual Medicine, looked at the sex lives of 114 partners of women who had recently given birth. Researchers at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor gave these partners (95 men, 18 women, and one unspecified gender) an online questionnaire aimed at assessing their physical, emotional, and relationship experiences during the first three months following their youngest child’s birth.

Previous research has mostly focused on postpartum sexuality in new mothers, finding that biological issues such as hormonal changes and breastfeeding can affect libido. But few studies have examined the effects of a new baby in the women’s partners (called co-parents).

Birth control may affect long-term relationships

The results of the current study show co-parents also experience similar shifts in sexuality, suggesting that hormones and other biological causes aren’t the only factors in play. Indeed, the researchers found that fatigue and stress tended to be a greater influence on low sexual desire in partners, rather than issues related directly to the physical and hormonal aspects of childbirth.

That makes sense, says sex coach Amy Levine. “When both partners are involved in caring for the baby, sleep deprivation and attending to his or her needs at a moment’s notice takes a toll,” she explains. “Anyone who is actively involved in the care of their infant has likely experienced the ups and downs of arousal during at least the first few months.”

The study included some same-sex partners, who tend to experience the effects of parenthood on libido similarly to their heterosexual counterparts. However, there are some differences.

“Some gay couples do not have the support of their families, meaning no grandparents to give the couple a break from childcare. And in some areas of the country, there is still prejudice against gay people and gay families, a major stressor that straight families don’t face,” says psychotherapist Margie Nichols. “But same-sex couples have advantages as well. Studies of gay couples show that they divide childcare and housework tasks more equitably, making it less likely that one parent will feel overwhelmed and possibly resentful.”

Parenthood, new or not, can be challenging to intimacy, but it certainly doesn’t have to signal the end of your love life. Here are some steps to help you prioritize sex:

Reignite that spark. Before you try to jump back into things, take the time to reassess your sex life and revisit what excites and energizes you. “We all have ways of sexually turning ourselves and our partners on and off,” says sex therapist Megan Fleming. “Make and share a list of your list of turn-ons with each other, then commit to doing one thing from that list as a healthy daily practice.”

Do’s and don’t for summertime sex

Redefine intimacy. Depending on the physical issues a new mom faces after childbirth, it’s not a bad idea to put intercourse on the back burner while enjoying other forms of intimacy, such as hugging, kissing, and touching, until she has fully healed from a C-section, episiotomy, or other concerns, says women’s health expert Dr. Jennifer Wider.

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Be creative. Too busy to even think about getting busy? Ask friends or loved ones to watch your little one(s), hire a babysitter, or trade play dates with other parents so you and your partner can enjoy your own date nights – or date days. If your child is a baby, take advantage of his or her naps to get frisky.

Talk things out. As with almost everything involving your sex life, communication is key. When one person in a couple experiences low libido, it definitely affects his or her partner, says Wider. Communicate openly about your concerns, and discuss solutions to common problems that could be interfering with intimacy, such as vaginal dryness.

Just do it. It’s normal to find yourself in a sex rut, whether you’ve just welcomed a new baby or are parents to a teen. But just as a rut can deepen when you ignore it, sex tends to beget more sex.

In my experience, if one partner is experiencing decreased desire, it’s crucial for the other partner to stay in the game and not retreat out of rejection. Happy kids require happy parents. So put your relationship – and intimacy – at the top of your to-do list. Your family will thank you.

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