Lacey* was surprised to feel differently about sex with her husband while breastfeeding her second child. “I had low supply issues with my first child so I didn’t breastfeed, and sex happened as soon as my doctor gave me the green light [at six weeks postpartum],” she says. This time around, however, at nearly two months postpartum, Lacey says she “barely wanted to be touched, let alone have sex.” And yet, she also felt like she should have been ready.
Though the cultural conversation on breastfeeding has evolved, such that formula-feeding has grown less stigmatized, breastfeeding is often still portrayed as the easiest, cheapest, and healthiest way to feed a newborn. Indeed, breastfeeding comes with a host of long-proven benefits for a baby’s health, which is why the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends exclusive breastfeeding for six months followed by continued breastfeeding (alongside complementary foods) for two-plus years.
What that recommendation minimizes, however, are the impacts of breastfeeding on the breastfeeder: For those who are able to breastfeed—who have a good latch, ample supply, and access to support and products—the process isn’t just time-intensive (and thus money-intensive, too) but also physically and emotionally draining. One lesser-discussed effect of that toll on body and mind: a drop in libido and difficulties with intimacy while breastfeeding.
A 2018 study of more than 800 first-time mothers found that breastfeeding was associated with lack of sexual interest at six months postpartum, along with painful intercourse and vaginal dryness; and a 2019 study of more than 300 breastfeeding women found that sexual dysfunction was present in nearly 60 percent of participants. It’s not surprising then that those who breastfeed have also been found to be significantly more likely to delay resuming sex postpartum (which naturally limits their ability to reap all the benefits of orgasm).
Why breastfeeding can put such a damper on your libido
While the breastfeeding journey is different for everyone, certain physical, psychological, and emotional changes common during breastfeeding tend to put sex low on the priority list.
Some of these changes are hormonal: “Many people experience low libido [while breastfeeding] due to the effect of being in a low estrogen state,” says board-certified obstetrician-gynecologist Kerry-Anne A. Perkins-Gordon, DO, FACOOG, MBA. This happens due to the rise of the hormone prolactin, which supports lactation by amplifying milk supply; it subsequently triggers a drop in estrogen, “which can lead to vaginal dryness and lower libido, both of which tend to make the desire for sexual activity relatively low,” says Dr. Perkins-Gordon. After all, a dry vagina can make sex painful, and just knowing that sex is likely to hurt can make you seek it out less.
“Many people experience low libido [while breastfeeding] due to the effect of being in a low estrogen state.” —Kerry-Anne A. Perkins-Gordon, DO, FACOOG, MBA, obstetrician-gynecologist
At the same time, the hormone oxytocin that is produced during sex and orgasm (often called the “cuddle hormone”) is also released during breastfeeding, which can “lower your desire for sex, given it’s already being produced in your body,” adds Dr. Perkins-Gordon.
There’s also the very real effect of new parent sleep deprivation, which can cause daytime tiredness and exhaustion (further squashing your libido as a result). And because breastfeeding makes use of significant nutrients and water content, the process can magnify that fatigue, particularly if you don’t consume enough additional water and calories to replenish those losses.
Physiological realities aside, there’s also the psychological effect of breastfeeding, which can lower your libido by changing the way you perceive physical touch. Plenty of breastfeeding people describe a sensation of being “touched out,” which is when you feel like “your body is overstimulated from being touched for other’s needs,” says psychotherapist and sex therapist Shadeen Francis, LMFT, CST. Any new parent may be able to relate, but the extra skin-on-skin contact and the transformation of the breasts—an otherwise sexual organ—into a 24/7 milk factory can make the touched out feeling especially poignant in those who breastfeed.
For Lacey, the effect of being touched out was to make her breasts totally “off-limits” for sexual activity; she couldn’t perceive them as a place for feeding her newborn, and then just flip a switch and see them as an erogenous zone. Naturally, the tiredness she was feeling also made her retreat even further from intimacy with her partner. “Most days, I was so exhausted that anything besides going to bed just wasn’t in the cards,” she says. “And when we would try to have sex, it just wasn’t that enjoyable, and my mind would race and overthink everything.”
How to improve your sex life while breastfeeding
Sexologist and sex coach Myisha Battle recommends taking some time to think about the kind of sex life you’d ideally like to have during this period, with the acknowledgement that it’s temporary. (You won’t be a new parent forever, and you certainly won’t be breastfeeding forever, after all.)
“I encourage my clients to take the standard six- to eight-week clearance for sex with a grain of salt.” —Myisha Battle, sexologist and sex coach
“Some people may want to get back to penetrative sex quickly, while others may want to hold off for longer, as they adjust to the needs of their breastfeeding body,” says Battle. “I encourage my clients to take the standard six- to eight-week clearance for sex with a grain of salt. Just because you appear to be physically ready for sex doesn’t mean you don’t have underlying factors that may make sex difficult.”
In the interim, building more hugging, kissing, cuddling, and talking (about yourselves, not work or the baby) into your relationship can be helpful for maintaining a sense of connection and intimacy while you’re breastfeeding, adds Battle. And who knows? Any of these acts could begin to refresh your interest in sex, too.
If you find that you’re just running out of energy for sex in the time you have with a partner, Francis suggests scheduling sex—a tried-and-true way to mitigate the “too tired for sex” issue. While it might sound a little dry, scheduling sex can actually increase your sense of intimacy with a partner by reminding you both that it’s a priority. And protecting time for sex also helps you better manage your energy throughout the week (or day), says Francis.
There are also very literal things you can do to make the sex itself more pleasurable for a breastfeeding body—which can have the effect of boosting your libido and putting you more in the mood for sex, too. Dr. Perkins-Gordon suggests using ample lubricant to combat natural vaginal dryness during this stage and also staying well-hydrated and maintaining a nutrient-rich diet to ensure your vaginal tissue is nourished. She also recommends continuing to take a prenatal vitamin and supplementing with vitamin E to maintain vaginal elasticity.
If you’re still struggling with pain during sex postpartum, Dr. Perkins-Gordon says it may also help to see a pelvic floor physical therapist, who can walk you through exercises that help rehabilitate and strengthen the pelvic floor muscles—which can become weakened during pregnancy and childbirth (and play a crucial role in sex and orgasm).
For Lacey, the biggest priorities have been identifying ways to reconnect with her husband and rekindle intimacy outside of sex. She says that acceptance for the season she’s in—being a tired and breastfeeding new mom—has been key in releasing the shame she’s felt around her lacking interest in sex after her second child. “I feel hopeful because I know this phase of my life is temporary,” she says. “I’m also lucky to have a supportive partner who is understanding and patient, and willing to figure things out with me.”
This reflects another key solution to navigating libido changes during breastfeeding: open and honest communication with a partner regarding sex and intimacy needs. “Intimacy is about engaging in an emotional connection,” says Francis. And the only way to foster that connection is for both parties to hear, acknowledge, and respect the needs of the other.
*Names have been changed for privacy.
- O’Malley, D., Higgins, A., Begley, C. et al. Prevalence of and risk factors associated with sexual health issues in primiparous women at 6 and 12 months postpartum; a longitudinal prospective cohort study (the MAMMI study). BMC Pregnancy Childbirth 18, 196 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12884-018-1838-6
- Fuentealba-Torres, Miguel et al. “What are the prevalence and factors associated with sexual dysfunction in breastfeeding women? A Brazilian cross-sectional analytical study.” BMJ open vol. 9,4 e025833. 25 Apr. 2019, doi:10.1136/bmjopen-2018-025833
- Rowland, Mary et al. “Breastfeeding and sexuality immediately post partum.” Canadian family physician Medecin de famille canadien vol. 51,10 (2005): 1366-7.
- Senol, D K et al. “The effect of maternal fatigue on breastfeeding.” Nigerian journal of clinical practice vol. 22,12 (2019): 1662-1668. doi:10.4103/njcp.njcp_576_18
- Rogers, Rebecca G et al. “Pelvic floor symptoms and quality of life changes during first pregnancy: a prospective cohort study.” International urogynecology journal vol. 28,11 (2017): 1701-1707. doi:10.1007/s00192-017-3330-7