That first, awkward post-labour shag is a bit like losing your virginity all over again. The early stages of new mammahood are a mindbending swirl of hormonal shifts and intense, contradictory emotions. You’re a lioness! A soldier! You’re exhausted, empty, a deflated balloon. You’ve been through a momentous physical event in which your vagina (or belly) became the door through which an entire person entered the world. Just the idea of sex can be daunting.
Beyond the medical advice – like "wait until you’ve stopped bleeding to avoid the risk of infection" – there’s no rule about when you should have sex again. It depends on many things: what kind of birth you had, how quickly you heal, when you feel ready. After a vaginal delivery, some women find penetration scary. “We did it after five weeks. I felt like it would be good to do it before the six-week checkup so if it all went horribly wrong, I could ask the doctor,” says 29-year-old Lizzie, who has a 14-month-old. “I hadn’t had a traumatic birth – I didn’t tear – and the post-birth period had finally dried up. I was worrying about it and I thought the longer I left it, the worse it would be.”
“We were all prepared. We’d gone to the shops and got shitloads of lube. We picked a moment when the baby was asleep. I felt really nervous – it was painful and it felt massive. I remember thinking, 'How does it feel so massive if I’ve just had a baby?'” she continues. “Once he put it in I was like, OK, don’t move! That’s probably enough for today, thank you. Then I thought, 'No, let’s just do it'. It wasn’t so much about pleasure, more about getting it done so I didn’t feel nervous the next time.”
Other women's relationship with sex changes way before childbirth, even before pregnancy – when they’re trying to conceive. Michelle, 31, has two kids aged two and three. She and her boyfriend had tried for a year and a half for their first child. “This changes the nature of sex a little bit – it can get a bit functional!” she says. “Once I fell pregnant, sex was really uncomfortable. It was strange. I kept wanting to be able to have sex but just couldn't. I put it down to pregnancy hormones and we just muddled through.”
They gave it a go three months after the birth but it still hurt. “I kept trying to seek medical attention but was fobbed off with 'relax' and I was too polite to challenge it.” After her cousin, a GP, had a look and discovered an infection, she got a round of antibiotics. “It didn't really change things, though. I still couldn't enjoy penetrative sex; it became a mental barrier because I was so worried about things never being the same again.” The turning point came when Michelle stopped breastfeeding. “Come 10 months I’d finally got my horn back and everything was fine,” she says. “I mean, I was really horny. I started to find CBeebies' Mr Bloom sexy.”
Softer, saggier, boobier – your body post-baby is an old friend you haven't seen for years. You've changed. They've changed. You have to get to know each other all over again. And, as in Michelle's case, breastfeeding can make some women feel this body doesn’t quite belong to them anymore. “Your breasts are huge and amazing so your partner wants a piece of them but you can feel a bit like, ‘Oh they’re not yours’. I tried not to be too weird about it,” says Jasmine, 33, who has two kids aged one and six. “I’m still breastfeeding occasionally and I don’t feel that way now. They’re not as sensitive and they’re not being got at all the time by the baby.” Lizzie sometimes sprayed milk during sex, which was “embarrassing” but generally she felt great about her body. “I loved my tits and I didn’t have any hang-ups. I saw my body in a different light. I felt like it was this amazing thing that had created a baby so I was just going to cut it some slack.”
You're asking your partner, 'What do you think? Does it look the same? Does it feel the same?'
Lizzie did worry about her vagina, though. “You can’t really talk to anyone about it. You’re asking your partner, 'What do you think? Does it look the same? Does it feel the same?'” she remembers. Jasmine says that going through labour twice and being birth partner to a friend helped her understand better how elastic vaginas are – especially when you’ve done your pelvic floor exercises. “It was a real eye-opener,” she says. “None of us know enough about our genitals – some women think you only have one hole! – but now I realise that it’s not the opening, it’s the muscle tone that makes a difference. It’s changed the way I have sex.”
After those initial months of getting back into sex, the barriers tend to become more logistical than physical. There’s house shit to do. There’s a good show on Netflix. There’s a baby in your room who could wake up any minute. “We’d wait for her to fall asleep and quietly sneak off. It was like we were having an affair,” says Jasmine. With the bedroom out of bounds, the house can become your playroom, as you’re forced to use the bathroom, the kitchen, the front room instead – these limitations make things more interesting, Jasmine adds: “I’d never recommend abstaining but actually not doing it that often means it’s really good when you do.”
Another practicality you have to think about anew is contraception. When you’re trying to get up the duff, and throughout pregnancy, unprotected sex is the norm. Breastfeeding can stop your period returning for months, even years, but it’s not guaranteed to keep babies at bay. Suddenly you’re back in a world where accidentally getting pregnant is a distinct possibility. Jasmine found this terrifying. “Before you have a baby, unprotected sex is so romantic; you’re like, wooo let’s have a baby. After you have a baby, you’re like, please for God’s sake, let’s NOT have a baby!”
Michelle and her boyfriend were less cautious – and she got pregnant immediately. “It had been so sensitive and painful getting back to the stage we could have sex that I just didn't want to use condoms; they made me sting. We did the withdrawal method but that's not really a method is it?” This time, though, she was prepared. “I knew not to panic. We would make love but without penetration. Breastfeeding hormones needed to be out of my body for me to enjoy sex. I wish I'd had this self-knowledge before and saved myself hours of anguish,” she says. “The main thing I took is that it shouldn't feel inadequate to have sex without penetration and that, for some people, sex is really difficult when pregnant and breastfeeding.”
For a while at least, sprogging sets your sex life back to zero and it takes time to restore, with some tricky terrain to navigate along the way. But that new beginning offers a blank slate, a chance to discover or rediscover what you like. Despite their different experiences, Lizzie, Michelle and Jasmine all agree that sex now is good – as good, if not better, than before. “Apart from occasionally being disturbed by the baby and feeling too tired to muster the energy, when we actually do it, we think, 'Oh we should do this more often, it’s great!'” says Lizzie. “I’m really starting to enjoy this next phase,” adds Jasmine. “I’m sure about the kind of sexual relationship I want to have and it’s important to me. I want to crack on and have as many orgasms as I can.”
Names have been changed