Bringing a new baby into the home greatly changes parents’ daily lives and can cause significant strain on the couple’s relationship. For example, research suggests that the demands of caring for a newborn can affect parents’ sexual relationship, possibly reducing sexual interest and sexual satisfaction.
There are many reasons why sexual activity may decrease after childbirth. Physical health factors, postpartum depression, and increased childcare responsibilities are potential influences. But one of the most frequent reasons for not participating in sexual activity after childbirth is fatigue. This seems plausible, as parental sleep satisfaction decreases significantly after delivery, likely due to a lack of sleep while navigating the infant’s sleep schedules.
Researchers Michal Kahn and his team point out that there is a lack of research data on the relationship between sleep and sexual health. Furthermore, this association had not previously been studied among parents with young children.
“I’m a sleep researcher and clinical psychologist, and as part of my clinical work I meet many parents of babies who are absolutely exhausted from endless tasks at work and at home,” explained Kahn, a postdoctoral researcher at Flinders University. . .
“Many have substantial sleep deprivation, which makes it harder for them to enjoy parenting and their partner. They often say they don’t have the time or energy for intimacy, which made me wonder if the links between infant sleep, parental sleep, and parental intercourse have ever been examined. I found that there was almost no literature on this, so with my collaborators (Drs. Michael Gradisar and Natalie Barnett), I decided to take a look.
Kahn and his colleagues sought to investigate how various factors related to fathers’ sleep might influence their sexual activity during the 18-month postpartum period. First, the study authors recruited a final sample of 897 parents of infants aged 1 to 18 months. In online questionnaires, parents answered questions about their sexual activity, including their level of sexual satisfaction and how often they had sex with their partner in the past month. They also completed measures of sleep quality, relationship satisfaction, and postnatal depression.
In addition, the study used a method called self-videosomnography to monitor the babies’ sleep at home for two weeks. Video monitors placed over the crib were used to detect motion stillness within the crib at night. This allowed researchers to measure how long a baby sleeps, how often a baby wakes during the night, and how often a parent visits the crib.
On average, parents reported engaging in sexual activities as a couple 3.8 times per month. Sexual activity between parents increased with the baby’s age and was particularly low during the first 3 months after birth. Beyond the 6-month period, older child age no longer predicted increased parental sexual activity.
The researchers looked at whether room sharing, parental sleep quality, infant sleep duration, infant awakening, and parental crib visits were associated with frequency of sexual activity. Interestingly, after controlling for covariates, only parental crib visits could significantly predict parental sexual activity frequency: more crib visits were associated with less frequent sexual activity. For example, parents who visited the crib more than 4 times per night reported having sex twice less per month than parents who visited the crib 0 to 0.5 times per night.
“On a positive note, we surprisingly found no significant link between satisfaction with the sexual aspect of the parent’s relationship and child/parent sleep or related variables,” Kahn told PsyPost. “Therefore, it appears that sexual satisfaction does not change depending on whether the baby or the parents sleep better or worse, perhaps because the parents see this broken or short sleep as a temporary and expected phenomenon.”
“Our main finding, however, was that fathers who provide extended overnight care (i.e., visit the infant’s crib more frequently) engage in significantly less sexual activity. There are many possible reasons for this bonding (such as the physiological or emotional changes that occur when waking to soothe a baby).
The study authors say these findings are in line with research suggesting that night care can negatively affect mood, increase fatigue and increase depression. Parents who experience sleep disruptions while caring for infants may experience increased fatigue and negative mood, making it difficult for them to be sexually active. In addition, fragmented sleep can induce hormonal changes, particularly reduced androgen levels, which can reduce sexual desire and function.
The results suggest that it is not just baby awakenings or parental sleep disruption that affect sexual frequency. Instead, it is the act of waking and bonding with the baby that impairs sexual activity between the parents, possibly increasing arousal, making it harder for the parents to go back to sleep and further impairing sleep quality .
“In terms of implications, this finding suggests that gradually reducing parental involvement with the infant during the night may help restore their intercourse (in terms of frequency),” explained Kahn.
Among the limitations, the authors noted that their sample was not diverse, consisting primarily of white, heterosexual fathers with middle to high socioeconomic status. These parents may have had access to support that helped them cope with postpartum challenges, such as paid daycare or housekeeping services. This type of support may have provided parents with additional free time to compensate for poor sleep.
“The main limitation of this study was that it was cross-sectional, which means we know there is a connection between more nighttime parental involvement with the baby and less partner sex, but we don’t know why or what came first,” Kahn. added “To understand the causal relationship, we need to conduct longitudinal or experimental studies and check whether, for example, the implementation of interventions that aim to reduce parental involvement in the context of the child’s sleep has an effect on sexual frequency “.
The study, “Let’s talk about the sleeping baby: postpartum sexual activity and its links to room sharing, objectively measured parental and infant sleep, and overnight crib visits by parents,” was written by Michal Kahn, Natalie Barnett, and Michael Gradisar.