Study reveals decline in mothers’ sexual function after pregnancy, but stability in fathers

A study conducted in Portugal investigated how the sexual well-being of first-time parents changes during and after pregnancy. The researchers found that while fathers’ sexual functioning usually remains consistent during this period, mothers’ sexual functioning often declines from pregnancy to 6 months postpartum. Overall, 85% of new parents maintained regular sexual function after having a child. However, 15% of mothers experienced significant and persistent problems with sexual function and anxiety. The study was published in Archives of sexual behavior.

Sexual well-being is a state of physical, emotional and social well-being in relation to sexuality. It has two main aspects: the experience of unrestrained sexual function (being able to normally experience sexual desire, arousal, orgasm and absence of pain) and lack of sexual desire (the lack of negative feelings associated with one’s sex life). Sexual well-being is one of the most important components of the quality of a romantic relationship. Better sexual well-being is also linked to better mental and physical health.

There are certain periods in life when one’s sexual well-being is very vulnerable. One such period is one’s own or romantic partner’s pregnancy. This is especially the case with the first pregnancy. Studies have shown that the time from the start of pregnancy to 12 months after the birth of the child is a period in which the new parents experience significant changes in their social and biological functioning, which affect their sexuality.

Study author Inês M. Tavares and her colleagues wanted to better understand the sexual functioning of romantic couples and the distress they may experience as they transition to parenthood. They were interested in knowing if there are any typical trajectories couples’ sexual functioning goes through during this period.

The researchers wanted to understand the trajectories of sexual functioning and anxiety experienced by couples during this period. They hypothesized that various factors such as biomedical risks, fatigue, stress, depression, anxiety, attitudes toward sex during pregnancy, relationship quality, and perceived partner support could influence sexual functioning and anxiety over time.

The participants in the study were 257 Portuguese couples expecting their first child. The participants were in a relationship for an average of 7 years, their ages ranged between 19 and 47 years, 68% of the couples were married, while the rest were dating. They were examined at four different times: in the 20th week of pregnancy, the 32nd week of pregnancy, 3 months after birth and 6 months after birth.

Both mothers and fathers independently completed assessments of their sexual function and sexual disorders. In addition, they answered questions about biomedical factors related to labor and birth and reported on their energy levels, anxiety, depressive symptoms, attitudes toward sex during pregnancy, relationship quality, and perceived social support.

The results showed that mothers’ sexual functioning declined from pregnancy to 6 months after birth, while fathers’ sexual functioning remained stable during this period. The researchers identified two groups of couples based on sexual functioning changes: the high sexual functioning group (85% of couples) had relatively high levels of sexual functioning throughout the transition, while the deviant sexual functioning group – mothers clinically low (15% of couples) experienced sexual discord between partners, where mothers showed significantly lower levels of sexual functioning.

Regarding sexual distress, mothers’ distress increased from pregnancy to 6 months postpartum, while fathers’ distress remained stable. The researchers identified three groups based on changes in sexual distress: the low sexual distress group (77% of couples) reported low levels of distress throughout transition, the moderate sexual distress group (12% of couples) experienced moderate levels of distress that reached clinical levels at 6 months after birth, and the Discrepant Sexual Distress-Mothers Clinically Elevated group (11% of couples) had high sexual distress in mothers, but not fathers.

The study’s authors concluded that the majority of couples experienced high sexual functioning and low sexual distress during the transition to parenthood. However, a significant minority of couples faced challenges, with some mothers experiencing clinically significant low sexual function and high sexual distress. “We also identified critical time points (ie, around 20 weeks gestation and 3 months postpartum) to assess risk and protective biomedical and psychosocial factors to screen those individuals and couples at increased risk for sexual dysfunction across this transition,” the authors of the study wrote.

The study sheds light on changes in sexual function during the period when romantic partners become parents for the first time. However, it also has limitations that must be considered. In particular, sexual function and anxiety were self-assessed by the participants. There was no clinical assessment. In addition, the scoring system used excluded individuals who reported not being sexually active in the previous month from the analyses. This means that the results refer only to couples who were sexually active throughout the transition period to parenthood.

The paper, “Biopsychosocial predictors of couples’ trajectories of sexual functioning and sexual distress across the transition to parenthood”, is authored by Inês M. Tavares, Natalie O. Rosen, Julia R. Heiman and Pedro J. Nobre.

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