Couples are usually told to wait six weeks after the birth of a baby before having sex again. But new research highlights that there's not a specific "right" time for everyone.
Each woman's postpartum experience is different, researchers explained. Someone who had a very difficult birth and needed stitches may think six weeks is way too soon. But a woman who had an uneventful delivery may feel amorous again in just a couple of weeks.
"The six-week timeline is well established, but we couldn't find evidence to support it," said the study's lead author, Andrea DeMaria. She's an assistant professor at Purdue University College of Health and Human Sciences in Lafayette, Indiana.
There's really no one-size-fits-all time for resuming sexual activity, she said. The study authors suspect that the six-week timeline became standard because it coincided with a typical postpartum checkup.
But the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, along with other women's health care groups, recently updated postpartum care guidelines. The groups recommend that women be seen within three weeks after delivery, with a follow-up appointment before 12 weeks after birth.
For this study, the researchers asked 70 South Carolina women about reproductive health-related issues.
DeMaria said a number of factors keep women from resuming sex. "We found that some women just weren't sure about their bodies, or they had pain and discomfort, or they were just tired and exhausted from caring for a new baby," she said.
Another study author, Stephanie Meier, a Ph.D. student at Purdue, said a number of psychological factors can be a barrier to resuming sex.
The 'magic number'
"Women may not feel mentally prepared or may feel nervous, especially if they tried to have sex and it didn't go well the first time. Body image is also a concern, and some women aren't feeling super comfortable about the changes in their bodies," Meier explained.
Many women recalled receiving the six-week timeline from their doctor and some were told 40 days, nearly six weeks.
"Six weeks; that's what the doctor said," said one woman. Others felt the six-week timeline meant that's what their body needed to recover from the birth. "We waited for six weeks because I wanted everything to heal properly," said another.
Some doctors told the new mothers they could have sex again when they wanted to. One woman recalled her doctor unhelpfully saying, "Well, girl, you better, because if you don't, somebody else will," according to the report.
Roseanne Seminara is director of midwifery at New York-Presbyterian Brooklyn Methodist Hospital in New York City. "I'm not sure how six weeks became the magic number," she said.
Healing after giving birth is a process, and women should resume sexual activity when it feels right to them, said Seminara, who wasn't involved in the study.
Fatigue the number one enemy
She said it's best to wait until you're no longer bleeding. "Bleeding means the inside of the uterus, the uterine lining, isn't totally healed," Seminara added.
Women may hesitate to resume sexually activity if they had a lot of stitches, or if they have vaginal dryness. Sometimes remembering the pain of childbirth is a deterrent, she noted.
But, Seminara said, "Fatigue is the number one enemy of resuming intimacy."
In DeMaria's mind, communication between partners is key. "Discuss your desires, interests and needs," she advised.
And if you or your partner has concerns or ongoing fear or anxiety about resuming sexual activity, she recommended seeking help from your health care provider.
Results of the study were recently published in Culture, Health and Sexuality.
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