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Sex and breastfeeding

Breastfeeding illustration

Breastfeeding is an incredible feat of the human body. But it can also be overwhelming, especially with your first baby. Just after you’ve grown an actual human inside your womb, you find yourself entirely responsible for the nurture of that rapidly growing little person. Your body is doing amazing things, but your exhausted mind may struggle to keep up. I remember feeling like I was in a prison, where I had to keep my boobs within a few metres of my baby at all times, just in case he was hungry. Even going to the corner shop felt impossible. I was elated and terrified at the same time. Sex was the last thing on my mind.

But it did get easier, and my relationship with my body and my boobs changed several times as my children stopped breastfeeding. I’m still amazed at what my body was able to do, but I was completely unprepared for the many challenges of breastfeeding and how that would affect my physical relationship with my partner.

I wanted to highlight some of those challenges here. I spoke to a friend of mine, Jen*, about her experiences of sex during breastfeeding. Jen was determined to breastfeed her daughter, but had all sorts of problems getting going. The first time I saw her after birth, she was sitting on the sofa, half naked, a pump on each breast, baby nuzzled at her tummy, looking like she hadn’t slept in weeks. She had texted me in advance to tell me to let myself in, as it was too complicated to disentangle herself from her milking apparatus. I suspect she felt more like she was in a commercial dairy farm than in her sunlit living room with her newborn on her lap.

*not her real name.

Everyone’s experience is different. Some new parents can’t wait to get back to sex during breastfeeding, others take months or years to even consider it. These are some of our experiences, which relate to our relationships. Single parents or people in other types of relationships may have an entirely different perspective, but it can be helpful to know that feeling confused or unsure about sex during breastfeeding is common. Whatever your situation, you are dealing with an enormous life change, and you have a new and very demanding relationship with your baby which is going to affect how you feel about your body, yourself and your sex life.

Exhaustion and lack of intimacy

Any new parent will tell you how exhausted they are. Mental and physical tiredness don’t usually make for a good sex life. I could barely snatch 45 minutes of sleep at a time in the first few months, so bedtime was definitely not sex time. I co-slept with my babies for the first six months, using a side-cot on our bed, which meant my partner and I were very rarely alone together, and I was often sleeping with a mouth attached to my nipple for most of the night.

Jen had the same problem.

“It is hard if you co-sleep with your kid, and your partner is in another room (all sleep better that way!) because you aren’t getting that daily intimacy even from cuddling in bed. If things are to return to normal, we need to have the bed to ourselves for a bit.”

If you don’t feel like sex, try to find moments to keep up this simple intimacy. It might be lying on your partner while you collapse in front of the tv, having them sit with you while you have a bath, or just holding hands while you go for a walk. I used to put a cushion under my baby as I fed them on the sofa. When he fell asleep on the breast, we’d gently transfer the whole cushion and baby to my partner’s lap, then I could lie on my partner’s shoulder while the baby slept.

Pain

Breastfeeding can be very painful in the early days. I was never prepared for this. Even with my third child, I’d forgotten how your nipples become bruised and sore as they get used to your newborn’s hungry little mouth latching on. A newborn’s suck is very strong, and antenatal classes don’t always prepare you for this pain. It does get better, but those first few days can be frightening as you wonder how your breasts will cope.

For most people, the latch on should become a gentle and enjoyable experience. In fact, your body releases hormones during breastfeeding that are associated with pleasure. Oxytocin encourages a feeling of wellbeing as you connect with your baby, reducing tension and helping you to relax.

However, there are lots of reasons why breastfeeding can be painful, such as swollen breasts or cracked and sore nipples. I found that the worst pain came with thrush, but mastitis was a close second. These conditions are not conducive to sex, but they can give you an opportunity to engage with your partner in different ways.

Thrush

This is a common infection that can cause intense pain and redness in the breast. Breastfed babies can get thrush in their mouth, and this can be passed on to you if your nipples are cracked or damaged. I found this incredibly painful, a sharp, shooting sensation as if a needle was being pushed inside my breast. The pain tends to come on up to an hour after breastfeeding. This might be the exact time that you are settling down to bed with your partner, so it probably puts sex off the menu. The good news is that it is treatable with a short course of medication. If you think that you or your baby has thrush, talk to your GP as soon as possible.

I found it useful to talk to my partner about this, as I got thrush just when our evening routines were settling down. We were a little less exhausted and starting to have time for sex. But the pain could come on suddenly, even during foreplay. As the symptoms are not always visible, I needed to talk to him about what I was feeling.

Partners can often feel helpless when they watch the process of breastfeeding, and all the new experiences (good and bad) that come with it. They are watching an incredibly intimate process while losing the physical connection they are used to having with you. My partner found it very hard to watch me go through this pain while having no knowledge of how to help me. This was made worse by the fact that I didn’t want him to even hug me when the thrush pain came on.

Finding ways to let your partner help you can contribute to a sense of intimacy. They can feel part of your experience. My partner found it useful to read about thrush, help me make an appointment with the GP, and make sure I was applying my thrush cream at the right time. When our children had oral thrush, he took charge of treatment. Of course I could have done all this myself, but allowing him to be involved stopped him being left on the sidelines. When I felt better, we were able to gently explore each other again.

Signs and symptoms of thrush in breastfeeding (NHS)

Mastitis

I’ve had this several times. It is horrendous. My breasts looked bruised and swollen, and I felt feverish and exhausted. My partner didn’t want to come near me, as he was so worried that he’d hurt me at the slightest touch. In fact, I had to ask him to help to relieve the pain by massaging my nipples to encourage milk flow. This can be very painful, and my partner approached the task with great trepidation. At night, I would lie in bed, rigid on my back, not wanting to move in case the bed covers brushed my breasts. Yes, it is that bad.

For both of us, mastitis put any thoughts of sex well out of our heads. However, these were times when my partner would care for me in many other ways. I would lie on the sofa, a shivering wreck, my breast hanging out, while he would bring me warm cloths, tea, or the baby (which he’d deliver onto my swollen breast and then remove again once they’d finished).

The best treatment for mastitis is to keep feeding, and keep the milk flowing. But rest is also important, and this gave my partner a chance to spend more time with our baby and to show me intimacy in many small ways. While neither of us felt like sex, we were very much together and knew we’d get back to it when the time was right.

Treating mastitis (NHS Start4Life)

Leaking

Leaking is a natural part of breastfeeding. It can happen more in the early stages, or as you wean your baby, while your breasts adjust milk production to meet your baby’s needs. I fed all of my babies from one breast, as I have an inverted nipple on the other breast which never worked properly. This meant that my ‘feeding’ boob got so full in the first few days that I was almost screaming in pain. On one occasion, as my partner came to help, my boob started shooting milk across the room and hit him square in the eye. He had to hold a glass up to catch the spray for several minutes before it slowed down. My boobs turning into uncontrollable milk-shooting lasers did not feel very sexy.

Leaking duering nipple play

Even as your boobs settle down, leaking can still happen when your breasts are stimulated. If you are playing with your partner and your baby cries out in the next room, your breasts can respond with a rush of milk. Nipple play and touching can also stimulate your milk, so it can feel like your baby is asserting their needs even in the middle of your foreplay.

If leaky nipples make you feel uncomfortable during sex, talk to your partner about it. You might feel more comfortable keeping your vest on, or just avoiding the breasts for a while. Or, you might feel happy to just let it flow and get on with things. Some people don’t mind if their partner tries their milk, others find it weird and confusing: your milk is for your baby.

I’ll be honest, I did let my partner suck my nipple one time, as my boob looked like a bowling ball and was too swollen for the baby to latch onto. We were laughing so much that he almost couldn’t do it, and I’m pretty sure he felt no sexual connection to my breasts at that point. However, as I’ve said above, it meant he was part of the wonderful, terrifying and overwhelming process that is breastfeeding.

Relationship with boobs

My friend Jen, who spent many months with breast pumps attached to her nipples, told me, “breastfeeding definitely makes you feel funny about your breasts being sexual. I got a bit self conscious about that. It was like they were being used for their real purpose, so seeing them in a sexual way feels weird. It’s almost a bit embarrassing, like they are ‘different’.”

Your boobs can take a battering during breastfeeding. They will change shape, feel sore, get infected, and feel like they exist at the beck and call of your child. My bra size changed so often that I ended up wearing the wrong size for years until I felt it worth investing in something that fitted. And because I only fed from one breast, I had to pad out the other one so that people didn’t stare at my chest all the time (it was very obvious).

“One being bigger than the other feels weird,” agreed Jen. “It’s almost like they are not yours. I think to feel really comfortable about sex and my body and breast again they need to feel like mine again. And preferably be the same size as each other.”

I never really felt like my breasts ‘belonged’ to my baby, but many people do. What I did feel was that my breasts were just lumps of flesh, with the same level of erotic potential as my elbow. I like them to be stroked, in the same way that it’s nice to have my hair stroked. They are now just a fleshy body part. Whereas my partner sees them in the same way he always has (even if they are different shapes), as something that turns him on. So that’s something we’ve talked about, and it’s made me think about what other parts of my body I like to have touched during sex.

But that’s just me. They are your breasts, so it’s up to you what you do with them. What’s important is that you talk to your partner about how you are feeling. They may have no idea that you feel differently about your breasts, even months or years after you’ve stopped breastfeeding.

Loss of libido

If shooting breast milk and zombiefying exhaustion doesn’t do it, changing hormone levels during breastfeeding can make you feel less interested in sex. Lower levels of oestrogen can cause vaginal dryness, and the hormones that make you feel contented while you feed your baby might reduce your need for other forms of affection. You might just feel ‘touched out’, as Jen described it. “To be honest, if you feed beyond a year, a bath and a book often seems more appealing than sex. I just want to be on my own with my body to myself.”

Becoming a mother takes up a lot of headspace. I found this particularly hard. Suddenly, I was ‘mum’ to all visiting health professionals, and I felt like everyone looked at me differently. I was no longer a young, independent woman, I was just a mum. My entire identity was defined by my relationship with my baby. It can be hard to engage with sex when you lose your sense of self, particularly when you are breastfeeding. I often felt like I was a feeding machine, a physical extension of my baby, just there to service their needs. It took some strong words from a good friend to make me realise that making time for myself and my relationship (including sex) did not mean I was neglecting my baby.

Loss of libido is rarely down to one thing, so it’s not always easy to ‘fix’. Your sex life might never be the same as it was before, but it might be different, or better. When you are breastfeeding, it can be easy to think that your partner should defer to your needs at all times. They might be exhausted, but you are more exhausted. They might be able to feed the baby with expressed milk, but you still have to pump it out, and deal with pain, infection, breast pads, wet patches on your top, managing life around feeding times and so on. But you are also the one who gets to have the experience of breastfeeding. Your baby searching for you, and the milk that only you can produce, growing and developing entirely with sustenance that you create. Finding ways to involve your partner in this can be very important to maintaining intimacy until the time is right for both of you to try having sex.

Dr Gillian Holdsworth headshot

This post was clinically reviewed by:
Dr Gillian Holdsworth Fettle's Managing Director, Medical Doctor and public health expert.

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