Q. I’ve always rather liked my breasts, as has my husband. But since becoming pregnant I definitely haven’t thought of them in any kind of sexual sense. I recently finished breastfeeding my daughter, who is now nine months old, and I still can’t bear my husband to touch me there. How can I go back to thinking about them in a sexual way?
A Breastfeeding is a wonderful, sensuous and beneficial experience for mother and baby, but it tends to be the last nail in the coffin of parental sex. As soon as a woman makes the decision to breastfeed her baby, she temporarily signs away all rights to the milk bar. Her breasts are no longer sex objects, they are dinner — and that differentiation remains fixed until her baby discovers the delights of avocado purée or meat and two veg.
Although a new mother may, for the first time in her life, be endowed with breasts that other women routinely pay six grand for, the accompanying accessories — breast pads, nursing bras, hand pumps, cabbage leaves and Kamillosan — are about as sexy as granny pants. And when the nursing mother eventually realises that running a full-time dairy necessitates eating for four and the “breastfeeding makes you thinner” spin is a big fat lie, she begins to understand the attractions of formula.
Indeed, of five studies comparing the sexual experiences of women who chose to breastfeed against women who chose to formula-feed, four of them found that mothers who breastfed were less interested in sex, less likely to be having it and more likely to find it painful when they did.
It is not that surprising. The contract between a mother and her newborn involves unconditional 24-hour access, so by virtue of inconvenience alone, breastfeeding tends to have a prohibitive effect on parental sex. And biology compounds the problem. Though the same hormones that manufacture milk and promote bonding are closely linked to sexual arousal, prolactin, which triggers lactation, counteracts the effects of dopamine, the neurochemical responsible for sexual arousal, while oxytocin, which is released at orgasm, forms a kind of physical and emotional superglue between mother and child. To make matters worse, declining oestrogen can lead to dryness, so additional lubricant is often necessary.
Though there is not a great deal of research into the subject of sex after breastfeeding, a study carried out in 1994 by a team at the University of Sydney found that within three to four weeks of weaning, those women who had been breastfeeding for six months-plus were feeling less milkmaid and more sex kitten. Phasing out breastfeeding often takes a month or longer and, even after the final feed, it can take weeks for the breasts to stop lactating. It also takes time for hormone levels to adjust, which is why, after weaning, so many women report feeling as if they have terrible PMT.
On top of the hormonal adjustments, your overstimulated breasts are also trying to return to normal. When the baby sucks, it activates nerve endings in the nipple to trigger the release of more milk. At first, most women find this quite painful, but the breasts gradually desensitise. Needless to say, it takes time for the process to reverse when the baby is weaned — and until that happens you need to be patient. Some women find a ban on breast stimulation for the first few weeks helps. Others say that having their partner touch their breasts in a sexual way speeds the process. What you should do in the interim period is indulge yourself and your overworked mammaries. Naps, baths, body oils, massage, gentle swimming, yoga, highlights, a spray tan, sexy lingerie … and, of course, contraception.