Welcoming your baby can be a time of incredible joy, as you participate in the miracle of new life and marvel at your growing family. It can also be a time of incredible challenges, individually and in your relationship. The postpartum period will stretch you in ways you could not have imagined! With a little care and intention, you can nurture your relationship AND your baby, and watch both your relationship and your little one grow!
What Happens to the Romantic Relationship After Baby is Born?
The addition of a newborn into a growing family brings stress and adjustment along with the blessings. Often, expectations do not match the reality – one or both of you might be unprepared for the exhausting and demanding reality of caring for their infant during the “fourth trimester” (the first three months of baby’s life outside the womb).
In fact, relationship research shows that most intimate relationships experience a decrease in happiness when a new baby arrives. But don’t despair! The same researchers are quick to add that many relationships tend to recover their previous level of relationship happiness over time. Unfortunately, it can take quite a while for this to happen if both of you aren’t aware of the things you can do to keep your relationship strong before and during the added stresses of caring for a newborn.
Why Does New Parenthood Bring So Much Stress to The Romantic Relationship?
People relate best to each other under favorable conditions. Most of us find it easiest to communicate well, work as a team, and cope with life’s challenges when we are:
- Sleeping well and taking care of ourselves
- Enjoying our normal routines
- Getting a good balance of social and alone time
- Engaging in outside interests
- Feeling productive and appreciated
- Knowing who we are and what’s expected of us
Nearly all of the above environmental factors are in flux (or completely removed!) during the first few weeks and months postpartum – not to mention new baby hormones flowing through mom’s body! Your routine, workload, stressors, and your very identity have all shifted dramatically. So it makes sense that your closest relationship would experience strain, as most of the protective factors in your lives are in upheaval.
How Can You Make Sure that New Parenthood is a Time of Growth?
1. Prioritize Sleep
Everything feels more difficult when you’re exhausted, and a newborn baby will make you feel tired like never before! Both parents feel more tired than usual, but the overnight demands of feeding and diaper changes often fall to mom. Sleep provides a crucial buffer against postpartum depression and anxiety. Getting uninterrupted sleep helps protect your relationship, too, by decreasing irritability and squabbling over minor issues. Making sleep a priority should be a top goal that cannot be overstated, especially for mom.
Get creative with sleep! Sleep when baby sleeps, whenever possible. Go to bed at 8:00 p.m. if you need to. Leave laundry unfolded so that you can take a daytime nap. Dads can take baby out of the room following the first early-morning feeding, to let mom sleep a few more hours uninterrupted. If mom is really struggling, consider having a family member or postpartum doula come spend the night once or twice a week to help with baby care overnight while mom sleeps. Mom might wake in the middle of the night just enough to latch baby for a feeding, or allow the helper to offer the occasional nighttime bottle. It cannot be stressed enough that a new mom needs to sleep!
2. Cultivate Intimacy in Your Relationship after Baby Arrives
We don’t necessarily mean physical intimacy – although that will eventually get back to normal, too!) The addition of a baby causes emotional and physical intimacy to take a huge hit for most couples. Mom’s body is healing. Her body has changed in profound ways, and she’s still recovering and making peace with those changes. Both parents’ mental energy is suddenly diverted to all things baby.
Neither of you has much emotional or physical energy to dedicate to one another. Or, perhaps even more difficult, you might find there is a mismatch between mom’s and dad’s interest and availability for intimacy. It’s important to remember that a lull in intimacy is normal, and that a postpartum lack of intimacy does not equal rejection or lack of love in the relationship.
Embrace that intimacy might look different for a little while. Be patient with mom’s recovering body. Especially if she had a difficult birth, it will take her several weeks to several months to feel ready for physical intimacy. That is normal! But you can both be working on emotional intimacy with each other by following the other tips in this article. You can also pursue physical intimacy in other ways, by cuddling, holding hands, giving shoulder rubs, and most of all respecting the other person’s needs and wishes about closeness. Work up to intimate forms of touch when you both feel ready.
3. Discuss Expectations
Whether you’re still pregnant or have already welcomed your baby, it’s never too soon (or too late!) to start talking about expectations. Unmet expectations are one of the biggest sources of relationship problems, especially for new parents. What are you picturing your role will be as mom or dad? How will your jobs around the house change from pre-baby days? What roles did you see your own parents enacting when you were growing up? In what ways do you hope to be similar to your parents, and in what ways do you intend to parent differently?
It helps to be specific, and to exchange thoughts and feelings about what life will be like. Check in with each other again in a few weeks to see how things are working out!
4. Express Gratitude
The workload in your household will increase exponentially with the addition of diapers, feedings, bathing, and baby soothing. It’s easy to feel like you are doing the lion’s share of the work. And it’s super easy for tired parents to get into arguments about who’s doing more or less of the work. It creates immense strain on the relationship when one or both of you feel unseen or unappreciated.
Even before your baby is born, you can practice seeing each other, and noticing each other’s contributions. Set aside time each week or, even better, each day, to tell each other out loud what you appreciate about them. What have they done to help you or your baby? How have you seen them shining as a spouse and as a parent? Go a step further and clearly ask for what you need. Try saying, “Thank you so much for all you do already! It would help me so much if you could try to _________ each day/a few times a week/once in a while.”
5. Talk About the Birth
This is one of the most pivotal shared experiences you will have together as a couple! If you’re still pregnant, work together on your birth plan. I created a birth plan guide that you can get free access to here. Share your feelings with each other about different possible pathways for your baby’s birth, what you are hoping for and what you feel concerned about.
Postpartum, try spending time talking about your baby’s birth with each other. What were you thinking and feeling along the way? When did you notice the other person meeting or exceeding expectations? When did you feel supported? When did you feel most connected? What positive feedback would you most like your spouse to carry with them from this event? Your words have the power to build each other up and to strengthen your bond with each other.
6. Watch for Postpartum Mental Health “Red Flags”
Postpartum depression and anxiety disorders affect 1 in 7 mothers during pregnancy and after childbirth. These challenges are more than typical “baby blues”, or the ups and downs of early new parenthood. Postpartum depression and anxiety can affect new fathers, too!
If you experience ongoing sadness, lack of bonding feelings toward your baby, emotional numbness, self hatred, guilt, or overwhelming worry about something bad happening to you or your baby, you might be experiencing a diagnosable mental health condition. Experiencing intrusive thoughts or nightmares about your birth experience, whether or not you consider it to have been “traumatic”, are other signs you might benefit from professional help.
If one of you is experiencing these or other symptoms, the mental and emotional struggles will only make relationship problems appear more overwhelming as well. Reach out to your birth care professional (midwife, OB, nurse, or doula) and let them know, “I’m not ok.” Resources are available, and any of these people will be able to point you in the direction of help.
Your relationship after baby may require some extra attention, but these tips should help you get in the right direction. I want to encourage you that though postpartum can be a time of incredible stress and change, it can also be a time of leaning in, forging new relationship habits and a deeper bond that will carry you through the little years and into the rest of your lives together!
Disclaimer: Pregnancy by Design’s information is not a substitute for professional medical advice or treatment. Always ask your healthcare provider about any health concerns you may have.
Doss, B. D., Rhoades, G. K., Stanley, S. M., & Markman, H. J. (2009). The effect of the transition to parenthood on relationship quality: an 8-year prospective study. Journal of personality and social psychology, 96(3), 601–619. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0013969
Free Video Guide on Creating Your Birth Plan!
The Complete Guide to Writing Your Birth Plan is a step by step walk-through of the most important aspects of creating an effective birth plan. The guide covers everything you need to know from interviewing a provider, comfort measures and additional 1-page birth plan to talk over with your provider. Get free access today!