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Postpartum sexual enjoyment: Does mode of delivery matter?


For some parents, resuming sexual intimacy after having a baby is a top priority. For others, not so much – and late-night feedings and diaper changes may not be the only hang-ups.

Dyspareunia – pain during sex – occurs in a substantial number of women after childbirth, and recent research sheds light on how psychological and biomedical factors relate to this condition.

Mode of delivery, for instance, may have less of an effect on sexual well-being than some people suspect.

Despite a perception that cesarean delivery might affect sexual function less than vaginal delivery does, how mothers delivered did not affect how often they had sex postpartum or the amount of enjoyment they got from it, according to research published in BJOG.

Eleven years after delivery, however, cesarean delivery was associated with a 74% increased likelihood of pain in the vagina during sex, compared with vaginal delivery, the researchers found (odds ratio, 1.74; 95% confidence interval, 1.46-2.08).

The results suggest that cesarean delivery “may not help protect against sexual dysfunction, as previously thought,” Flo Martin, a PhD student in epidemiology at the University of Bristol, United Kingdom, and lead author of the study, said in a news release.

For their study, Ms. Martin and her colleagues analyzed data from more than 10,300 participants in the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children, which recruited women in the United Kingdom who were pregnant in 1991 and 1992.

The researchers had data about pain during sex at 11 years. They had data about sexual enjoyment and frequency at 33  months, 5 years, 12 years, and 18 years after delivery.

If women experienced pain during sex years after cesarean delivery, uterine scarring might have been a cause, Ms. Martin and colleagues suggested. Alternatively, women with dyspareunia before delivery may be more likely to have cesarean surgery, which also could explain the association.

Other studies have likewise found that different modes of delivery generally lead to similar outcomes of sexual well-being after birth.

“Several of my own longitudinal studies have shown limited associations between mode of delivery and various aspects of sexual well-being, including sexual satisfaction, sexual function, and sexual desire,” said Natalie O. Rosen, PhD, director of the Couples and Sexual Health Laboratory at Dalhousie University, Halifax, N.S.

Nevertheless, other published studies have yielded conflicting results, so the question warrants further study, she said.

Pain catastrophizing

One study by Dr. Rosen’s group, published in Obstetrics & Gynecology, tracked sexual pain in 582 people from mid-pregnancy to 2 years postpartum.

About 21% of participants experienced moderate pain during sex, as determined by an average pain score greater than 4 on scale of 0-10 points. The rest were classified as having “minimal dyspareunia.”

Pain tended to peak at 3 months postpartum and then steadily decrease in both the moderate and minimal pain groups.

Mode of delivery did not affect the odds that a participant would have moderate dyspareunia. Neither did breastfeeding or prior chronic pain.

“But we did find one key thing to look out for: Those who reported a lot of negative thoughts and feelings about pain, something called pain catastrophizing, were more likely to experience moderate persistent pain during sex,” the researchers said in a video about their findings.

Pain catastrophizing 3 months after delivery was associated with significantly increased odds of following a moderate pain trajectory (odds ratio, 1.09; 95% confidence interval, 1.04-1.15).


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