Many parents of infants report that fatigue has resulted in a decline in sexual activity after childbirth. New findings published in the Journal of Sex Research add nuance to this topic.
Bringing a new baby into the household can drastically alter the parents' everyday lives and can put a lot of strain on the couple's sexual relationship. For example, research suggests that caring for a newborn can wreak havoc on their sexual relationships, potentially reducing sexual interest and sexual satisfaction.
Following childbirth, there are many reasons why sexual activity might decline. Physical health risks, postpartum depression, and growing childcare responsibilities are all possible factors. However, fatigue is one of the most common reasons for not engaging in sexual activity postpartum. It is plausible because parents' sleep satisfaction decrease significantly after childbirth, most likely due to inadequate sleep during infant feeding.
Researchers Michal Kahn and her team feel there is a lack of research data on the connection between sleep and sexual health. Moreover, this association has not been previously studied among parents with young children.
“I am a sleep researcher and clinical psychologist, and as part of my clinical work I meet many parents of young children who are completely worn out by the endless tasks at work and home,” Kahn, a postdoctoral research fellow at Flinders University.
"Many people are significantly sleep-deprived, making it harder for them to enjoy parenting and their relationship." I began to wonder whether the connections between infant sleep, parent sleep, and parents' sexual relationship have ever been explored. Until I discovered there was little literature on this, I decided to look into it with my colleagues (Drs. Michael Gradisar and Natalie Barnett).
Kahn and her colleagues sought to determine how various factors related to parents' sleep might affect their sexual activity during the 18-month postpartum period. First, the authors recruited a final sample of 897 parents of babies between the ages of 1 and 18. They 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.
For the second week in a row, researchers used a video surveillance technique called auto-videosomnography to monitor infant sleep in the house. This allowed researchers to track how long an infant sleeps, how often an infant awakens during the night, and how many times a parent visits the crib.
Parents reported engaging in partnered sexual activity 3.8 times per month, on average. Sexual activity among parents increased with the age of the infant, and was especially low during the first three months postpartum. Beyond the 6-month period, higher infant age did not longer predict increased sexual activity among parents.
Only parent crib visits could significantly predict parents' sexual activity frequency, according to the researchers. For example, parents who visited the crib more than four times a night reported having sex roughly two times less per month than those who visited the crib 0–0.5 times a night.
Kahn told PsyPost that on a positive note, we found no significant connection between sexual satisfaction and infant/parent sleep or related variables. Perhaps parents perceive this short or broken sleep as a temporary phenomenon.
"Our main finding was that parents who provide extended caregiving during the night (i.e., visit the infant's crib more often) engage in substantially less partner sexual activity," according to a new research. There are many possible explanations for this (such as physiological or emotional changes that occur when awakening to soothe an infant."
These findings, according to the authors, are consistent with research suggesting that nighttime caregiving can reduce mood, increase fatigue, and increase depression. It's possible that parents who sleep late while caring for infants experience increased fatigue and decreased pleasure, which then interferes with their sexual activity. Additionally, decreased androgen levels may induce hormonal changes that can decrease sexual desire and function.
The findings suggest that infant awakenings and parental sleep disturbance are not the only factors that affect sexual frequency. Instead, it is the act of waking up and engaging with the infant that causes sexual activity among parents, potentially by increasing arousal, making it difficult for parents to resume sleep, and further affecting sleep quality.
"In terms of implications, this finding suggests that gradually reducing parental involvement with the infant during the night might help restore their sexual relationship (in terms of frequency)," Kahn explained.
The authors identified limitations: their sample was non-diverse, consisting mostly of white and heterosexual parents with middle to high socioeconomic status. These parents may have had access to subsidies for postpartum care or cleaning services, or these services might have provided extra free time to make up for poor sleep.
"This study had a major flaw because it was cross-sectional, which meant that we know why or what came first," Kahn said. "To understand the causal relationship, we need to conduct longitudinal or experimental investigations and test whether, for example, reducing parental involvement in the child's sleep context, has an effect on sexual frequency."
Michal Kahn, Natalie Barnett, and Michael Gradisar authored the research, "Let's Talk About Sleep Baby: Room Sharing, Parent Sleep, and Objectively Measured Infant Sleep and Parent Nighttime Crib Visits."