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Sexuality and Breastfeeding

Having a baby transforms a couple into a family and surely represents one of the most significant transitions in adult life. Despite the temporary upheaval and increased stress and responsibility, most couples ultimately discover that parenthood brings a whole new dimension to their relationship that enhances their intimacy and strengthens their bond. At first, however, personal and couple time is crowded out by the pressing needs of the infant newcomer, who easily becomes the focus of the family. The unencumbered spontaneity once enjoyed by childless couples soon is replaced by the comfortable familiarity of their infant's daily schedule and predictable routines. Former exciting leisure activities give way to new compelling interests in baby matters-the quality of a breastfeeding, the magnitude of a burp, or the color of a bowel movement. A new mother, physically depleted at the end of the day, understandably might prefer a quiet evening at home over a night out with her partner. And weeks of nighttime feedings can make a little extra shut-eye seem more appealing than a romantic interlude with one's mate. Before long, the enormous demands of parenthood can lead to neglect of the marital relationship and create tension between the partners.

No generalities can be made about the impact of breastfeeding versus bottle-feeding on a couple's sexuality because individual differences vary so widely. After giving birth, women generally are advised to abstain from sexual intercourse until they no longer have bright red vaginal bleeding and they feel comfortable. Most couples resume sexual relations between four and six weeks postpartum and eventually manage to enjoy sexual intimacy at their same prepregnancy level.

Because extreme fatigue, depression, and preoccupation can diminish libido, it's not surprising that particularly exhausted or overwhelmed new parents often have little energy for sexual activity. Mothers with medical complications of pregnancy or delivery or those who have C-section deliveries justifiably may take longer to recover from childbirth. The frequent complaint of being "too tired" for sex is more common among new mothers than new fathers, since a disproportionate burden of infant care responsibilities are borne by women. Although breastfeeding gets more than its share of the blame for maternal exhaustion, the truth is that caring for a baby is very demanding, regardless of which feeding method is used. Many, in fact, would argue that breastfeeding is easier on a mother than formula-feeding.

Sometimes, fear of discomfort during lovemaking causes women to avoid sexual intercourse, and fear of hurting their partner makes men reluctant to initiate sex. Excessive vaginal dryness (making intercourse more difficult) is a common complaint among breastfeeding women because estrogen levels are low during lactation. Your doctor can recommend a vaginal lubricant if this is a problem for you. Myths and misconceptions about the lactating breasts also can impact lovemaking. Men sometimes assume that when a woman's breasts are used to nourish a baby, they become off-limits sexually. A nursing mother's nipples may be less sensitive to sexual arousal. Other times, uncomfortable breast engorgement or cracked, painful nipples interfere with lovemaking. The intense physical intimacy of the nursing relationship leaves some breastfeeding women with little interest in their partner's sexual advances. With a baby at her breast much of the day, a woman might perceive additional physical contact as just one more demand on her body. Other women find that breastfeeding makes them more comfortable with and confident about their bodies, making them more sexually responsive than ever.

Breastfeeding is an integral part of the full cycle of reproduction. Lactation is not a random occurrence, but a predictable phenomenon that follows childbirth. The hormone oxytocin, which triggers the milk ejection reflex, is the same natural hormone that causes uterine contractions during labor, that shrinks the uterus back to its normal size after delivery, and that produces uterine contractions during sexual intercourse. Since breastfeeding and sexuality are seldom discussed in our society, most couples discover quite by accident the startling connection between orgasm and milk ejection. As a woman climaxes during lovemaking, oxytocin is released and milk spontaneously sprays from her breasts as an amazing reminder of the inextricable link between the sexual and nurturant roles of the breast.

When a woman is lactating, it is only natural for her partner to fantasize about suckling her swollen breasts and tasting the milk. I suspect that most partners do attempt to nurse from their mates during lovemaking and that doing so enriches the couple's intimacy. However, some women feel overly protective about their breasts when they are nursing a baby. A woman may fear that her husband's mouth will contaminate her nipples, that he may steal milk from the baby's next meal, or that his attempts at nursing will prove uncomfortable for her. These concerns are generally unfounded.

Despite your inevitable exhaustion and preoccupation with your new parental responsibilities, I urge you to make time for being intimate with your partner on a regular basis. At a time when your couple relationship is undergoing so much change, maintaining an active sex life will help preserve and strengthen the love bond between you. While spontaneous romance is a nice ideal, many contemporary couples find it useful to schedule time for sex just as they schedule other priorities in their life. Make a bedroom date with your mate. Choose a time when your baby predictably sleeps soundly. Then plan ahead to be as rested and renewed as possible so you will be able to focus on your partner and on giving and receiving pleasure.

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From Dr. Mom's Guide to Breastfeeding by Marianne R. Neifert. Copyright © 1998 by Marianne R. Neifert. Used by arrangement with Plume, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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