Hormones in Pregnancy, Breastfeeding, And Sex

husband holding wife with newborn

Having a baby is an exciting time, full of lots of changes whether it is your first, second or third baby (or more). Each pregnancy is unique, but one thing is for sure, your body goes through many physical and hormonal changes each trimester, during the birth process, and in the postpartum period. There are many shades of normal when it comes to your libido and feelings about sex during and after pregnancy. 

Hormones in Pregnancy, Breastfeeding & Sex

Estrogen  

During pregnancy: estrogen levels are very high. It is one reason that during parts of your pregnancy you may feel “in the mood” and want to be intimate with your partner more often. Estrogen is a sex hormone responsible for your breast growth during pregnancy stimulating the ductal system to proliferate. 

Postpartum: After you have your baby, the level of Estrogen drops and is the signal for milk to begin to increase, Milk transitions from colostrum to a mature milk supply. Lower levels of estrogen can cause vaginal dryness and a decreased sex drive. Nature is giving you time after having your baby for a time of recovery. Breastfeeding is further biologically protective from becoming pregnant right away. When following the baby's cues, it is a natural form of birth control. Breastfeeding delays the return of ovulation and your period, naturally spacing pregnancies apart.(1) Practicing the Lactational Amenorrhea Method, babies will often be 2 years apart if not more as it naturally promotes child spacing. 

Tips:

  • Eat nutrient-dense foods to support healthy levels of estrogen and lactation like oats, barley (unless you are gluten sensitive or allergic), alfalfa, sesame seeds, flaxseed, and garlic. 
  • Use a lubricant like coconut oil for comfort during foreplay and intercourse if you have vaginal dryness.

Progesterone

During pregnancyProgesterone rises during pregnancy. It helps establish the placenta. Progesterone stimulates the development of the lobules, the glands where milk is produced. It prevents contractions until the onset of labor.(2) The increase in progesterone is what makes some folks feel hotter during pregnancy and makes your hair grow and become thicker.

PostpartumAfter birth, progesterone takes a dive, significantly decreasing. This allows prolactin, the hormone that signals milk to be made, to do its work. Progesterone helps promote more restful sleep and plays a role in your desire for sex. High estrogen and stress can lower your progesterone levels. Lower progesterone can affect your mood which makes everything harder when trying to take care of a newborn.(3) 

Tips:

  • Improving gut health can help keep progesterone and estrogen in balance.
  • Eat foods high in fiber for more regular bowel movements. Healthy adults should have at least one bowel movement daily. Our bowel movements can tell us a lot about how our gut is functioning.(4)

Oxytocin 

During pregnancyKnown as the love hormone and the bonding hormone. Oxytocin increases late in pregnancy, beginning labor, and triggers contractions. 

PostpartumReleased during touch, skin to skin, when your baby sucks and from warmth oxytocin helps us bond with our baby. It helps us feel relaxed and signals the milk ejection reflex. For some people, just the thought of their baby or hearing their baby cry will trigger a letdown. When you are being intimate with your partner, oxytocin is released and milk may leak or spray. Talk about this beforehand so neither of you is caught off guard while in the moment.

Tips

  • Nurse your baby or pump before being intimate to reduce leaking and spraying milk during your time together.
  • Talk with your partner to share how each of you feels about it if you do leak.
  • It is normal to feel “touched out” at times as a nursing parent. Keep open communication with your partner about how you’re feeling. Sometimes a short walk and fresh air or another small break can rejuvenate you and aid in reducing that “touched out” feeling.

Prolactin

During pregnancy:

Elevated levels of prolactin during pregnancy prepare the body for feeding the baby by making milk. Colostrum is produced early in pregnancy, but progesterone prevents the breasts from lactating until after birth. 

Postpartum:

Prolactin levels stay high while progesterone drops after birth. This change starts lactation and continues to keep milk being made for the first few weeks. As your baby removes milk, prolactin tells the body to keep up production as your milk supply regulates.

Tips:

  • Although having to wake in the middle of the night to feed your baby can be tiring, milk removal triggers prolactin which is critical for milk supply.
  • Go to bed earlier so you feel more rested. When you are always overtired, you will be less interested in intimacy and sex.

Keep in mind:

  • The sudden and dramatic drop in estrogen and progesterone after birth is thought to be the reason for the baby blues.(3) Both are involved with dopamine and serotonin which are hormones that help regulate mood and make you feel good.
  • Some people feel more sexual desire during the time they are breastfeeding.(5) This is also on the broad spectrum of normal feelings.
  • Your body has gone through and is going through many changes. Practice self-love and positive self-talk about your body image. You housed and birthed a baby. That is one serious superpower! 
  • Parenting is demanding. Find ways to work together, share responsibilities, and spend time together in the picture. Even if it’s not your first child, your new family dynamic has changed and it can take time for everyone to adjust. 
  • Sex and intimacy are different. Both begin with communicating about how each of you feels, what feels good for you, and what you are comfortable engaging in. There is no one right answer.
  • Sometimes supporting, listening, and understanding each other is the best first foreplay. 
  • The bedroom is not the only place to make magic happen. Be creative, try new things and different places.
  • New experiences after having a baby can draw you and your partner even closer together.
  • There is no set timeline. Follow what feels right for you. Although it’s recommended to wait 6 weeks before having sex, only you know how your mind and body feel.
  • Be patient with each other. Communication is key.
Footnotes:
  1. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/7942265/
  2. https://slideplayer.com/slide/10288024/
  3. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/9584534/
  4. https://www.continence.org.au/bristol-stool-chart
  5. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0018506X04001278

Other Resources:

https://hellopostpartum.com/postpartum-hormone-timeline/

https://www.ecoparent.ca/eco-parenting/sex-after-birth

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3431754/

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3640235/


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