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Beyond date night and sexy lingerie: expert offers 'post baby hanky panky' advice

HALIFAX — This Valentine's Day, most new parents are likely fantasizing about a full night's sleep — not bringing sexy back into the bedroom.

A crying newborn, postpartum pain, endless breastfeeding and sheer exhaustion can make the idea of sex after childbirth seem outlandish to couples.

Now, hoping to address new parents' common sexual concerns, a Halifax researcher has launched a new awareness campaign called Post Baby Hanky Panky.

"We have a tendency to focus on things that fuel desire. Even around Valentine's Day, it's about a date night or some sexy lingerie," says Natalie Rosen, associate professor of psychology at Dalhousie University.

"We think about what's going to fan those flames but we also need to think about what is interfering with desire," she says. "You can have a date night and buy sexy lingerie but if the baby is crying in the next room or you know you're going to be up all night, it's not going to get you that far."

After years of researching sex after childbirth, Rosen is sharing her findings though a panel discussion Monday at the Halifax Central Library and a new website that includes research, resources for new parents and a series of videos.

The short videos touch on key issues related to postpartum sex, such as the top sexual concerns of moms and dads, sexual changes, differences in sexual interest, understanding needs to have — or not have — sex, and how caring outside the bedroom has benefits inside the bedroom.

"There is quite a bit of data to suggest that mom's sexual functioning goes down during this period. There's a drop in desire and there can be increased pain during intercourse," Rosen says. "But the dad's perspective — and the fact that sex happens between two people — has been really neglected."

She says it's about normalizing the sexual concerns of new and expectant parents and opening up the lines of communication between couples and health care providers.

Most doctors and midwives raise the topic of sex after baby with new parents, but Rosen says the discussion is often limited to "wait six weeks and use contraception."

"The two things that come up most commonly are when you can start having sex again, and that even if you're breastfeeding you can still get pregnant," says Rosen, who has a cross-appointment in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology at the IWK Health Centre.

But even though Rosen's research shows 90 per cent of couples resume intercourse by three months postpartum, she says one-third of moms and about half of dads report being unsatisfied.

In fact, a study with more than 250 couples across North America showed 90 per cent of couples reported some sexual concerns after having a baby, she says.

"It was ubiquitous. These concerns were on the minds of most parents," says Rosen, a clinical psychologist with a private practice focused exclusively on sex and couple therapy.

"I was blown away by how common sexual concerns were, given the fact that nobody is really talking about this."

Both parents reported worrying about how often they would have sex and if physical changes, including changes to a mother's body image, would impact their sex lives.

Moms also worried about fatigue and the impact of her physical recovery, while dads expressed concern with a so-called desire discrepancy between partners and mood swings.

Rosen says the biggest problem is when couples don't talk about their feelings or check in with each other.

"Maybe your breasts don't feel as erotic as they used to because they are also a source of food to your baby and you don't want them touched," she says. "Your partner isn't going to know that unless you share that with them and it could build some resentment or some discomfort if you don't."

Meanwhile, Rosen says couples that reported greater dyadic empathy — or the ability to understand and share a partner's feelings — reported higher sexual and relationship satisfaction.

"If you try to see things from your partner's perspective you might say, 'Wow my partner is waking up three times a night to feed a baby and they seem really overwhelmed and exhausted and I'm concerned about them. Maybe I'll let her sleep in.' These behavioural changes can fuel connection and desire," she says.

Another finding is that partners who share an equal responsibility for household chores and caregiving also report more satisfaction, including sexual satisfaction. 

Most of the research related to the Post Baby Hanky Panky awareness campaign is based on couples in heterosexual relationships, although Rosen says there has been an increased effort to recruit same sex couples.

The panel discussion, which will be live streamed on Facebook, takes place from 7 to 8 p.m. at the Halifax Central Library. In addition to playing the five short videos, experts including a family doctor, a midwife and parents who will speak about sexuality and relationships, followed by a question and answer session. 

Brett Bundale, The Canadian Press

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