Sexuality and Breastfeeding
Tasneem Jennifer Crooker
Norman OK USA
Report on a session from the 2005 LLLI Conference
From: NEW BEGINNINGS, Vol. 22 No. 5, September-October 2005, p. 208
Sexuality and its relationship to breastfeeding is a topic that most nursing mothers have many questions and concerns about yet rarely discuss. In a candid and detailed session, "Sexuality and Breastfeeding: Mother and Lover," accompanied by a slide show of lighthearted cartoons and photographs relating to the sex lives of parents, Ros Escott (BappSc, IBCLC) discussed the physiological basis for the integral relationship between breastfeeding and sexuality as well as the range of feelings and experiences nursing mothers can have when making the transition from lover to mother.
Escott described the various and often overlapping functions of the hormone oxytocin in both sexuality and breastfeeding. Oxytocin plays a role in sexuality by stimulating uterine contractions, increasing sexual arousal, contributing to orgasm (in both males and females), and the feeling of "post-coital bliss." Physical contact or even just seeing one's partner stimulates the release of the hormone. Oxytocin's role in breastfeeding includes causing nipple erection, increasing blood flow to the breast and to the mother's skin (to keep the baby warm), enhancing the expression of instinctual behaviors (in mother and baby), contributing to the flow of nutrients from the blood into the mother's milk, giving the mother a feeling of calmness, increasing tolerance of pain, and enhancing wound healing. Because of the feelings of calmness and emotional connection oxytocin generates in the nursing mother, it is often called "the mothering hormone."
Escott explored how, despite the intimate physiological connection between breastfeeding and sexuality, during the transition from mother to lover both mothers and their partners can find it difficult to reconcile and integrate these two aspects of themselves. Escott discussed issues that often arise and the range of feelings and experiences mothers can have in each stage of the transition, starting with pregnancy and continuing on through birth, the early postpartum period, and the later postpartum period.
During pregnancy, the mother's changing body can affect both her feelings about her body as well as her physical ability to engage in sexual activity. The mother's birth experience can also affect her feelings about her body and sexuality and the physical effects of giving birth, of drugs given during labor and delivery, and of postpartum hormone adjustments can all affect her sexual function. Both her and her partner's feelings about her changing body and particularly her breasts will have a significant impact on her postpartum sexuality.
During the postpartum period, some mothers feel a new sense of their body's power and importance and experience increased interest in sex while others feel mutilated, disinterested, preoccupied with the baby, tired, "touched out," or depressed. Fathers can also be overwhelmed by the pregnancy and birth experiences and can have difficulty reinstating the sexual relationship with the mother.
In her conclusion, Escott emphasized the need for partners to reassure each other about their roles in their newly changed relationship and the need for the partners to listen to and respect each other's needs and feelings as they work together to find ways to honor each other's sexuality while meeting the needs of their baby.