For some parents, resuming sexual intimacy after having a baby is a top priority. For others, not so much — and late-night feedings and diaper changes may not be the only hang-ups.
Dyspareunia — pain during sex — occurs in a substantial number of women after childbirth, and recent research sheds light on how psychological and biomedical factors relate to this condition.
Mode of delivery, for instance, may have less of an effect on sexual well-being than some people suspect.
Despite a perception that cesarean delivery might affect sexual function less than vaginal delivery does, how mothers delivered did not affect how often they had sex postpartum or the amount of enjoyment they got from it, according to research published in BJOG.
Eleven years after delivery, however, cesarean delivery was associated with a 74% increased likelihood of pain in the vagina during sex, compared with vaginal delivery, the researchers found (odds ratio, 1.74; 95% CI, 1.46-2.08).
The results suggest that cesarean delivery “may not help protect against sexual dysfunction, as previously thought,” Flo Martin, a PhD student in epidemiology at the University of Bristol, United Kingdom, and lead author of the study, said in a news release.
For their study, Martin and her colleagues analyzed data from more than 10,300 participants in the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children, which recruited women in the United Kingdom who were pregnant in 1991 and 1992.
The researchers had data about pain during sex at 11 years. They had data about sexual enjoyment and frequency at 33 months, 5 years, 12 years, and 18 years after delivery.
If women experienced pain during sex years after cesarean delivery, uterine scarring might have been a cause, Martin and colleagues suggested. Alternatively, women with dyspareunia before delivery may be more likely to have cesarean surgery, which also could explain the association.
Other studies have likewise found that different modes of delivery generally lead to similar outcomes of sexual well-being after birth.
“Several of my own longitudinal studies have shown limited associations between mode of delivery and various aspects of sexual well-being including sexual satisfaction, sexual function, and sexual desire,” said Natalie O. Rosen, PhD, director of the Couples and Sexual Health Laboratory at Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada.
Nevertheless, other published studies have yielded conflicting results, so the question warrants further study, she said.
One study by Rosen’s group published this year in Obstetrics & Gynecology tracked sexual pain in 582 people from mid-pregnancy to 2 years postpartum.
About 21% of participants experienced moderate pain during sex, as determined by an average pain score greater than 4 on scale of 0-10 points. The rest were classified as having “minimal dyspareunia.”
Pain tended to peak at 3 months postpartum and then steadily decrease in both the moderate and minimal pain groups.
Mode of delivery did not affect the odds that a participant would have moderate dyspareunia. Neither did breastfeeding or prior chronic pain.
“But we did find one key thing to look out for: Those who reported a lot of negative thoughts and feelings about pain, something called pain catastrophizing, were more likely to experience moderate persistent pain during sex,” the researchers said in a video about their findings.
Pain catastrophizing 3 months after delivery was associated with significantly increased odds of following a moderate pain trajectory (odds ratio, 1.09; 95% CI 1.04-1.15).
Let’s Talk About #postbabyhankypanky
Caring for a newborn while maintaining a romantic relationship can be challenging, and “there is a lack of evidence-based research aimed at helping couples prevent and navigate changes to their sexual well-being postpartum,” Rosen said.
During the 2-year study, a growing number of participants reported having sex less often over time. The percentage of women who had engaged in sexual activity in the past 4 weeks was 99% at baseline (20-24 weeks of gestation), 83.5% at 32 weeks of gestation, 73.9% at 3 months postpartum, and 69.6% at 2 years postpartum.
“One crucial way that couples sustain their connection is through their sexuality,” Rosen said. “Unfortunately, most new parents experience significant disruptions to their sexual function,” such as lower sexual desire or more pain during intercourse..
Rosen’s group has created a series of videos related to this topic dubbed #postbabyhankypanky to facilitate communication about sex postpartum. She encourages women with dyspareunia to talk with a healthcare provider because treatments such as cognitive-behavioral therapy, pelvic floor physical therapy, and topical medications can help manage pain.
Veronica Gillispie-Bell, MD, MAS, director of quality for women’s services at the Ochsner Health System in New Orleans, said that she sees patients with postpartum sexual pain frequently.
Patients typically are instructed to have pelvic rest from delivery until 6 weeks after.
At the 6-week appointment, she tells patients to make sure that they are using lots of lubrication because vaginal dryness related to hormonal changes during pregnancy and breastfeeding can make sex more painful, regardless of mode of delivery.
For many patients, she also recommends pelvic floor physical therapy.
As the medical director for the Louisiana Perinatal Quality Collaborative — a network of care providers, public health officials, and advocates that aims to improve outcomes for birthing persons, families, and newborns — Gillispie-Bell also is focused on reducing the rate of cesarean deliveries in the state. The BJOG study showing an increased risk for dyspareunia after a cesarean surgery serves as a reminder that there may be “long-term effects of having a C-section that may not be as obvious,” she said.
“C-sections are life-saving procedures, but they are not without risk,” Gillispie-Bell said.
Leila Frodsham, MBChB, a spokesperson for the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, told Medscape UK that it was “reassuring” to see “no difference in sexual enjoyment or sexual frequency at any time point postpartum between women who gave birth via cesarean section and those who delivered vaginally.”
“Women should be supported to make informed decisions about how they plan to give birth, and it is vital that healthcare professionals respect their preferences,” Frodsham added.
Clinicians should also remain aware that sexual pain is also common during periods of subfertility, perimenopause, and initiation of sexual activity.
Combinations of biological, psychological, and social factors can influence pain during sex, and there is an interpersonal element to keep in mind as well, Rosen noted.
“Pain during sex is typically elicited in the context of a partnered relationship,” Rosen said. “This means that this is an inherently interpersonal issue — let’s not forget about the partner who is both impacted by and can impact the pain through their own responses.”
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