Q. Ever since I had our first baby six months ago, my husband and I almost never have sex. I'm just too tired and stressed out. Is this something that will get better with time? When?
A. Lions and tiger and bears... diapers and poopies and wipes. If you feel like you just landed in a strange land and had a house fall on your relationship, you'd be pretty accurate. The birth of your first child is an incredibly wondrous yet stressful adventure. Nothing can compare to the upheaval of going from a family of two to a family of three. Suddenly, the love you felt only with your husband is expanded; in fact, new mothers talk about falling in love their babies. And their babies need their mothers' fascination and focus to bond and thrive. But this precious gift often demands more energy and time than new parents have, especially when frequently living without their extended families nearby and juggling part- or full-time work.
For a time, fathers are like arms around the "mommy-baby couple," taking a slightly back-seat role. But the priority of the marriage reasserts itself when husbands begin to need the reassurance of being central in an intimate way to their wives. Break-point often comes at about six months, when everybody has felt squeezed by too little sleep and too little attention. Something has to give! Sex is an important priority that can remind the father of his place in his wife's heart, remind the mother she's a woman first and seal the bond of the marriage, which is essential to the eventual success of the family.
Practically, sex can bring enormous pleasure and stress relief to the couple. But how can this be accomplished when the mommy falls asleep as soon as she stops moving? Here are some goals:
1) The mother must have six continuous hours of sleep per night. Going without sleep for four days can leave her exhausted and unable to relax in her new role, much less in bed. Fathers can help by bringing the baby in at night for nursing or feeding the baby by bottle and then diapering and putting baby back to sleep. He should take this active role at least every four nights and both weekend nights, if working.
2) Get help! Take in-laws, friends and others up on their offers for favors. Hire out the housekeeping and a few weeks of laundry if it's at all affordable to you. Any chore accomplished by another will give a new mom bent on perfection permission to nap. You've heard it said, but it is the best advice possible for her sexual return: nap when the baby naps.
3) Visit your doctor for an exam before resuming sexual relations. Ask your physician if you are a candidate for vaginal estrogen. The milk-producing hormone prolactin lowers sexual desire and dries vaginal tissue sometimes for months after a young mother delivers or stops nursing. Fear of pain when resuming sexual intercourse after a vaginal delivery, even after a Cesarean, can cause anxiety and lead to a further delay of intimacy. Couples should use a lubricant for the first several lovemaking sessions.
4) Relax first. Soak in a warm bath. He should give her a long backrub to reacquaint her with receiving touch instead of being simply a touch-giver. Drink a glass of wine together and reconnect emotionally.
5) Mommy-moon. If ever there was a time to spring for a hotel room, this is it! Physically separating a woman from her place of work as a mother – the home – can have enormous psychological benefits. Have a trusted in-law stay for three hours with the baby. Nothing can dampen the moment quite like having the baby cry and wake up right when the two lovers are on the brink of rediscovering each other.
Laurie Watson, licensed marriage and family therapist and certified sex therapist, is the author of Wanting Sex Again, released in December 2012. She writes the Married and Still Doing It blog for Psychology Today and is the clinical director of Awakenings Center for Intimacy and Sexuality in North Raleigh. You can follow her at AskLaurieWatson on Twitter or on Facebook.