Fifty-three women had not resumed sexual intercourse at 6 months postpartum. For 13 women, this was because they had no partner. The other 40 women had partners but had not resumed intercourse. Of these, depressed women most commonly stated loss of libido, lack of interest in sex, tiredness, physical problems, and feeling unattractive as the most common reasons for lack of resumption. Nondepressed women mentioned fear of pregnancy, need for contraception, partner being away or ill, and time spent with the child as additional reasons.
Of the 412 women who had resumed sexual intercourse, depressed women were significantly more likely to report that their partner initiated the resumption of sexual intercourse (Table 2). However, there were no significant differences between depressed and nondepressed women in terms of their evaluation of the frequency or quality of their sex life.
There were some differences in the profile of sexual activities between depressed and nondepressed women (Table 3). Women without depression tended to engage in more varied sexual activities at all points in time; thus, a decrease in the activities at 6 months postpartum is more evident.
Compared with the year before pregnancy, significantly more problems were experienced at 6 months than before pregnancy by both depressed and nondepressed women (P = .002 and P < .001, respectively). At 6 months, however, the median number of problems was higher for depressed women than nondepressed women (a median of two versus a median of one; P = .009). The pattern of sexual problems was similar between the two groups: high levels of problems in the first 3 months, and fewer problems at 6 months but not a decline to prepregnancy levels (Figure 2).
Of the 330 women who reported a postnatal sexual problem, 12.4% (41) reported talking to their doctor about the problem, and 33% (109) discussed it with their partner. However, the majority of women 60% (199) reported that they had not discussed the problem with anyone. There were no significant differences between depressed and nondepressed women in terms of whether they discussed the problem with their doctor (P = .46) or partner (P = .73), or whether they had discussed the problem at all (P = .91).
This article demonstrates that many sexual health changes occur in the postpartum period. By 6 months, a majority of women had resumed or attempted to resume sexual intercourse, but for most of those women, intercourse was less frequent, and for many, it was less satisfying than before pregnancy. Women with postnatal depression followed a similar pattern of resumption than those without depression, with increasing numbers of women engaging in intercourse over each of the consecutive months postpartum. However, depressed women were significantly less likely to have resumed intercourse by 6 months, and of those who had resumed, 25% felt that they had resumed intercourse too soon. A woman's feelings about herself and her life situation may play a great role in this judgment. It is possible that this is a reflection of her changing role as a mother and her relationship with her partner.
Sexual practices also changed in the postpregnancy period. The pattern of change was similar in all women studied, with higher levels of vaginal intercourse, oral sex by either partner, and genital contact during the prepregnancy time and lower levels at 6 months postpartum (except genital contact without intercourse in depressed women). Overall, depressed women engaged in fewer activities. The activity changes, along with a constant amount of genital contact, may represent a replacement of one activity for another. The change in oral sex may be a reflection of the woman's feelings about herself, her changes in her body, and her relationship with her partner.
This study also demonstrates that sexual problems such as vaginal dryness, dyspareunia, and decreased libido commonly exist in women after childbirth. All women studied follow a similar pattern, with high levels of problems reported in the first 3 months after delivery and lower levels at 6 months (but not a decline to prepregnancy baselines). Although the pattern of problems did not differ between depressed and nondepressed women, depressed women reported significantly more problems at each time point. Although this study can demonstrate associations between sexual problems and depression, causality cannot be ascertained. It is possible that the depression causes women to evaluate their health in a more negative manner. Conversely, it is also possible that an increased number of negative sexual health outcomes may contribute to the development of postnatal depression.
Previous studies have demonstrated that postnatal sexual health problems may be related to obstetric experience and/or perineal injury.46–48 Our findings did not find a relationship between obstetric trauma and postnatal depression. This suggests that a more complex interplay may exist between factors such as sexual satisfaction, dyspareunia, and postnatal depression. Further studies on this area should be undertaken to better elucidate this relationship.
We found low rates of consultation with the general practitioners for problems with sexual health, consistent with a previous study,2 but we found that depressed women were no more (or less) likely to consult. Given the increased medicalization of sexual problems,49 the rates of consultation are likely to increase over time. This study provides a basis for clinicians to provide information to women, depressed or not, on the problems they are likely to encounter, which of those may resolve, and when to seek further health care.
Our study achieved a 61% response rate. Ideally, this would have been higher, but given the subject of the questionnaire and the inner-city location of the research, it was an acceptable response rate and comparable to other studies.14,16,46,48,50 From the birth records, it was possible to determine that our nonresponders differed from our responders in terms of age, marital status, ethnicity, country of birth, and occupation. Explanations for this nonresponse are likely to include higher mobility and/or cultural and language differences. However, because three of the variables we had a nonresponse bias on (ethnicity, country of birth, and occupation) were associated with depression in our analysis, we were concerned that depressed women might be underrepresented in our study. Although we cannot fully gauge the extent of this potential bias, we were reassured that the prevalence of depression in our sample was close to that found in other similar studies.4,5,7,17 Part of our study relied on recalled information (ie, sexual problems before pregnancy and the first 3 months), and, as with all retrospective studies, recall bias may be a limitation of this study. However, the focus of the study was on current depression and current sexual problems—information that was collected contemporaneously. Also, because we used a cross-sectional study design and a validated measure in the postnatal period to identify women with postnatal depression, we did not have comparable information about depression in the prepregnancy or antenatal period. Consequently, we do not know what proportion of women with (and without) postnatal depression had previously experienced depression. Additionally, our data did not include factors on partners' feelings and risk for postnatal depression, and therefore, this potentially significant factor could not be assessed. More information on the partner and the partner's role may be elicited in future studies on this subject.
Overall, it is clear from our results that negative sexual health outcomes exist in many women after childbirth and, in common with the few previous studies to include information on both depression and sexual health,17,18,30,31 depressed women are more likely to report sexual health problems or negative outcomes. However, the striking feature of this study is the extent to which both depressed and nondepressed women reported sexual health problems. The high levels of sexual morbidity found in nondepressed women also have a parallel with a few recent studies of women's physical health in the postnatal period.17–19 Depressed women appeared to have a worse sexual health profile in the postnatal period than nondepressed women, and a complex interplay of physical, social, and psychologic factors is likely the cause. On the basis of our findings, however, we would advise health professionals not to assume that postnatal sexual morbidity is simply a product of depressed mental state.
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