Waking up to check on the baby is associated with reduced sexual activity postpartum, study finds

Many parents of infants report that fatigue has led to a decline in their sexual activity after childbirth. New findings published in the Journal of Sex Research add nuance to this topic. The researchers found that the amount of times parents visited their baby’s crib during the night — as captured by camera monitors above the crib — was associated with reports of less frequent sexual activity among the parents.

Bringing a new baby into the home greatly changes the parents’ everyday lives and can introduce significant strain into the couple’s relationship. For example, research suggests that the demands of caring for a newborn can take a toll on parents’ sexual relationship, possibly lowering sexual interest and sexual satisfaction.

There are many reasons why sexual activity might decline following childbirth. Physical health factors, postpartum depression, and an increase in childcare responsibilities are all potential influences. But one of the most commonly reported reasons for not engaging in sexual activity postpartum is fatigue. This seems plausible since parents’ sleep satisfaction drops significantly after childbirth, likely due to insufficient sleep while navigating infant sleep schedules.

Researchers Michal Kahn and her team note that there is a lack of research data concerning the relationship between sleep and sexual health. Moreover, this association has not been previously studied among parents with young children.

“I am a sleep researcher and clinical psychologist, and as part of my clinical work I meet many parents of young infants who are absolutely worn out by the endless tasks at work and at home,” explained Kahn, a postdoctoral research fellow at Flinders University.

“Many are substantially sleep-deprived, making it more difficult for them to enjoy parenting and their partnership. They often say they don’t have the time or energy for intimacy, which made me wonder whether the links between infant sleep, parent sleep, and parents’ sexual relationship have ever been examined. I discovered there was almost no literature on this, so — with my collaborators (Drs. Michael Gradisar and Natalie Barnett) — decided to take a look.”

Kahn and her colleagues sought to investigate how various factors related to parents’ sleep might influence their sexual activity during the 18-month postpartum period. First, the study authors recruited a final sample of 897 parents of infants between the ages of 1–18 months. In online questionnaires, parents answered questions about their sexual activity, including their level of sexual satisfaction and how frequently they had sex with their partner in the past month. They also completed measures of sleep quality, relationship satisfaction, and postnatal depression.

Additionally, the study used a method called auto-videosomnography to monitor infant sleep in the home for two weeks. Video monitors placed over the crib were used to detect motion-stillness within the crib at nighttime. This allowed researchers to measure how long an infant sleeps, how often an infant awakens during the night, and how many times a parent visits the crib.

On average, parents reported engaging in partnered sexual activity 3.8 times per month. Sexual activity among parents increased with the age of the infant and was particularly low during the first 3 months postpartum. Beyond the 6-month period, higher infant age no longer predicted increased sexual activity among parents.

The researchers analyzed whether room sharing, parent sleep quality, infant sleep duration, infant awakenings, and parent crib visits were associated with sexual activity frequency. Interestingly, after controlling for covariates, only parent crib visits could significantly predict parents’ sexual activity frequency — more visits to the crib was associated with less frequent sexual activity. For example, parents who visited the crib more than 4 times a night reported having sex about two times less per month than did parents who visited the crib 0–0.5 times a night.

“On a positive note, we surprisingly found no significant links between satisfaction from the sexual aspect of parents’ relationship and infant/parent sleep or related variables,” Kahn told PsyPost. “So it looks like sexual satisfaction does not change as a function of whether the baby or parents are sleeping better or worse, perhaps because parents see this broken or short sleep as a temporary and expected phenomenon.”

“Our main finding, however, was that parents who provide extended caregiving during the night (i.e., visit the infant’s crib more often) engage in significantly less partnered sexual activity. There are many possible reasons for this link (such as physiological or emotional changes that occur when waking up to soothe an infant).”

The study authors say these findings are in line with research suggesting that nighttime caregiving can negatively affect mood, increase fatigue, and increase depression. It may be that parents who suffer sleep interruptions while caring for infants experience increased fatigue and negative mood, which then hinders their sexual activity. Additionally, fragmented sleep might induce hormonal changes — particularly reduced androgen levels — that can reduce sexual desire and function.

The findings suggest that it is not infant awakenings nor parent sleep disruption alone that impacts sexual frequency. Instead, it is the act of waking up and engaging with the infant that impairs sexual activity among parents — possibly by increasing arousal, making it difficult for parents to resume sleep, and further impairing sleep quality.

“In terms of implications, this finding suggests that gradually reducing parental involvement with the infant during the night may help restore their sexual relationship (in terms of frequency),” Kahn explained.

Among limitations, the authors noted that their sample was non-diverse, consisting mainly of white and heterosexual parents with middle to high socioeconomic status. These parents may have had access to support that helped them cope with postpartum challenges, such as paid childcare or cleaning services. This type of support might have provided parents with additional free time to make up for poor sleep.

“The main limitation of this study was that it was cross-sectional, meaning that we know there is a connection between more parental nighttime involvement with the infant and less partnered sex– but we don’t know why or what came first,” Kahn added. “To understand the causal relationship we need to perform longitudinal or experimental studies, and test whether, for example, implementing interventions that aim to reduce parental involvement in the child’s sleep context – has an effect on sexual frequency.”

The study, “Let’s Talk about Sleep Baby: Sexual Activity Postpartum and Its Links with Room Sharing, Parent Sleep, and Objectively Measured Infant Sleep and Parent Nighttime Crib Visits”, was authored by Michal Kahn, Natalie Barnett, and Michael Gradisar.

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