Each year, about 4 million babies are born in the United States. Expecting these bundles of joy leads to millions of doctor’s appointments scheduled, prenatal vitamins swallowed, breast pumps ordered, and pregnancy books piled up on coffee tables.
These books are great for understanding how your baby progresses from the size of a seed to a bean to various fruits, but they tend to be about as helpful as an abstinence-only sex ed teacher for learning much that is useful and true about sex. As a sex researcher and educator myself (and a mother of two), here’s what you need to know about sex during this glorious—but often nauseating—stretch of months.
Yes, it’s okay to have sex during pregnancy.
Unless a woman* has a high risk pregnancy, or if her doctor or midwife says otherwise, it’s usually fine for to stay sexually active. Vaginal intercourse, oral sex, masturbation, breast stimulation, and partnered massage are likely all still on the menu, to the extent that you’re into it. Maintaining a sexual connection with your partner can keep your bond strong throughout the stresses and joys of prenatal visits and the tedious, overwhelming experience of reading reviews of cribs, strollers, and more baby gear than seems reasonable.
It’s probably even okay to use sex toys—but ask your doctor.
This is a tricky one, as there has been no safety research on sex toy use during pregnancy. That said, most dildos are shaped and sized similar to penises, so the logic tends to go that if a penis-in-vagina is okay, then a sex-toy-in-vagina is likely okay, too. Less is clear about vibrators, though we’ve had women in our research studies talk about using vibrators while pregnant, and some OB/GYNs feel vibrator use is safe if sex is safe. But again, ask your own doctor since every pregnancy is different.
Sexual frequency tends to decrease during pregnancy.
Research tends to show less sex during the first trimester, probably due to the extreme fatigue many women experience and/or due to nausea and vomiting (called “morning sickness," even though it can strike any time of day or night).
Some women experience greater sexual arousal and desire during the second trimester, thanks to increased blood flow to the genitals and—if one is lucky—a reprieve from nausea and vomiting. (Others do not.) Another decrease in sex frequency tends to occur in the third trimester, probably due to body awkwardness or feeling tired from getting up to pee 3 to 5 times each night.
Quantity may be less, so make quality count. If you’re feeling too tired or sick, talk openly with your partner. Let them know you’re still super attracted to them, but things are just different for the time being. If intercourse is awkward or painful, try using your hands, fingers, toys, or whatever kind of sex you both can safely and pleasurably get into.
Your stand-by sex positions might change.
You’re less likely to do it missionary style, especially during the second and third trimester when pregnant women are often advised to avoid lying on their back. Expecting couples more often go for side-by-side sex and rear-entry, even though some still choose missionary, albeit often for shorter bouts of time.
How you orgasm might change, too.
This is not well explored scientifically but, as a sex researcher who has sex researcher friends who have also been pregnant, we’ve noticed and discussed it. Some who reliably had orgasms from vaginal intercourse stopped having them that way while pregnant. And the reverse happened, too: Others who experienced orgasms from external clitoral stimulation, but never vaginal intercourse, suddenly had intercourse orgasms.
During pregnancy, the uterus grows, organs shifts, and blood flow changes, all of which can affect genital sensation and pressure. Keep some curiosity about your sexual response—if one thing no longer “works” or feels as good, explore. Whether it's through masturbation or partnered sex, pleasure and orgasm are yours to discover.
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Foreplay might look and feel different.
Gone (for now) is alcohol-fueled foreplay. And that gorgeous bra you used to love? It might not fit anymore as breasts enlarge, even in first trimester, in preparation for nursing. It’s also common for women to experience nipple sensitivity, which can lead some women to prefer nipple play and others to ask their partners to avoid it.
For many couples, though, a fascinating change takes place: they find themselves talking one day about their pregnancy, their baby, and their feelings about being a mom or a dad. And as they open up and connect, they bond, they feel intensely in love, and they feel aroused. Dreaming about your baby together (or holding hands over your belly, as you feel for kicks) is a uniquely beautiful form of foreplay. Enjoy those moments.
You might want to schedule sex.
Whether it’s afternoon fatigue, nausea/vomiting, or the groggy side effects of common medications used to treat nausea/vomiting, pregnancy can cause a number of hiccups in a woman’s day. Women who predictably know that they’re more prone to feeling bad or sick during certain times of the day might want to talk with their partner about avoiding sex then and initiating it at other times. The upside to getting better talking about sex is that, by the time your baby arrives, you’ll be pros at conspiring to find times to have sex.
*The use of the words woman/women throughout is not perfect, as some trans* men (assigned female at birth) carry pregnancies, too. The word choice here reflects that the vast majority of pregnancies are carried by cis-gender women and that most of the research on sex during pregnancy that has been conducted to date, and that forms the basis for this article, involves cis-gender women. I expect that many of these changes would be relevant to pregnant transmen, too, but there might be some important and unique experiences not represented here.
Debby Herbenick is an associate professor at the Indiana University School of Public Health, a research fellow at The Kinsey Institute, and author of Because It Feels Good: A Woman's Guide to Sexual Pleasure and Satisfaction.
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