By Monica Karpinski
They say there’s nothing that can prepare you for the birth of your first child. But what about what happens before that — how many women can say for sure that there was nothing about being pregnant that surprised them?
Changes to libido is one of these surprises. And depending on who you ask, evidence can be conflicting: some women report surges of arousal while others had no desire whatsoever to be touched, let alone have sex.
When speaking to women whose libido dropped during pregnancy— as well as scrolling through forum threads — a common feeling of guilt emerges for not wanting to have sex with their partners.
Ursula, who was 29 at the time of pregnancy, experienced a gradual decline in libido around the end of the second trimester, when her belly began to grow. By the third trimester she had no libido at all. “I had sex to fulfill my husband’s needs, but it was not often.” she says. “I did feel bad at times for my low libido. I felt that maybe I was being unfair with my husband, or that I am conscious that we all have needs. So I felt bad that maybe I wasn’t paying much attention to it.”
By the end of the third trimester, anything to do with sex disgusted Ursula. If her husband came over to try and kiss her, or start something sexual, she would start feeling annoyed. “I felt bad for feeling like this towards him, but I couldn’t help it,” she says.
Katie, 27, has a similar story. Having previously enjoyed an active sex life as part of the local BDSM community, Katie says she can count the times on one hand that she and her partner have had sex since she fell pregnant. She is currently in her third trimester. “Sex was such a big part of the relationship beforehand and suddenly it’s changed and it’s me that made it change,” she says. “The pregnancy made it change.”
Like Ursula, Katie feels guilty for her lowered sex drive, despite understanding that she has no reason to be.
Katie is right. Pregnant women have no reason to feel guilty for having low libido. They’re going through a staggering amount of physical and emotional change that includes side effects including, but not limited to nausea, exhaustion, hypersensitivity, and vomiting. Between all that, surely, it seems quite reasonable not to have a thought spare for sex.
Researchers tend to agree that the majority of women will experience a drop in libido throughout all trimesters, with the most significant loss of libido in the third.1 When compared to pre-pregnancy levels, 71% (99/139 women) of pregnant women in one study reported a reduction in sexual activity during pregnancy,2 while another describes a general decrease in sexual desire between couples, along with less sex, from the first to the third trimester.3 It has been noted however that empirical data on the topic is limited,4 and that many studies on sexual activity during pregnancy were carried out over two decades ago.5
So if a drop in libido is the norm, why do some women feel guilty about it?
“Mums are too hard on themselves”, says Anthonissa Moger, a midwife who works at the birth centre and labour ward at St Thomas’ hospital alongside running her own hypnobirthing classes.
Romantic ideas of what pregnancy should be like and how pregnant women should behave can put immense pressure on mums. Anthonissa believes that women feel guilty for not wanting to have sex because of pressure to meet these expectations as set by society, what we see in the media, and widely-held ideas of what constitutes a healthy, normal relationship.
“It’s meant to be magical,” she says. “You’re growing a baby and you’re meant to be coming together as a family. And then obviously sex is one way we mentally and physically connect with our partners, and when you’re saying ‘Actually, I don’t feel like it,’ that can be quite strange and jarring.”
Pressure to have having sex regularly, and to be having good sex, can also affect mums, she adds. “Sometimes, you know what? Sex just isn’t your priority. You’re growing a baby and you’re working and you may just not have the energy and capacity to be able to.”
Physical symptoms and changes can also take their toll on a pregnant woman’s libido, Dr. Rupert Critchley, practising GP and member of the Royal College of General Practitioners, explains. “In the first trimester people tend to experience nausea, vomiting, and tiredness, and that in itself is probably going to have an effect on sex drive. It’s almost like a bell-shaped curve: in late trimester one and into two, the hormones start to drop off a bit and you have an increased blood flow to the genitals and vaginal lubrication, and as a result the clitoris becomes hyper-stimulated.” By the third trimester, sex drive can lower due to back pain and pelvic changes, along with general discomfort.
Ursula believes that physical changes did affect her libido, in terms of how they made her feel. “My clothes wouldn’t fit, and at the end I was all swollen and felt fat. I have a skinny build and it was difficult for me to see myself so different,” she explains.
“Sometimes I even thought that maybe my husband wouldn’t feel attracted to me — he always did, and actually thought I looked sexy and cute with my belly and big boobs — but I felt too weird, as if in a strange, unknown body.”
Plus, says Katie, the changes to body shape pregnant women experience can make sex difficult logistically. “Physically moving into positions you would normally use before aren’t possible. Quite often I’d be lying on my front, and when someone’s pregnant that isn’t really an option.” The drain on spontaneity that this comes with this can also be a bit of a buzzkill, she adds.
Despite having a supportive partner, Katie is at a stage where she has accepted that low sex drive is a part of her pregnancy.
Discussing libido during pregnancy more openly could be a huge help to women feeling confused or concerned, Anthonissa and Dr. Rupert agree. It could also encourage more women to seek answers from a healthcare professional.
While he believes that attention to emotional health has generally improved in medicine, Dr. Rupert thinks that GPs should take a more holistic approach with pregnant patients. During antenatal checks with his patients, libido rarely comes up in conversation. “We do quite a physical examination and you kind of start to neglect the emotional part, [but] it is really important to bring up,” he says. “It’s really important to ask about the emotional and psychological aspects.”
This is down to the way medics are taught to do antenatal checks at medical school, he explains, although he acknowledges that awareness of emotional health is becoming an increasingly important part of the curriculum.
Above all, it is important to remember that the changes you feel to your sex drive during pregnancy are normal. And just because you don’t feel like sex, it doesn’t mean your relationship is any less strong. There are other things — like enjoying each other’s company and supporting each other through this exciting time — that are just as important as sex.
“You don’t have to be having sex to have a healthy relationship,” Anthonissa says. “Just understanding that the changes in the body are profound and they affect the way the body feels and your emotions, it’s so normal. Normalising the lack of sex drive is very, very important.”