Family Matters

Doctor’s Orders: Sex During Pregnancy Gets the Green Light

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Passion can be as much a part of pregnancy as an expanding waistline, according to a review of studies on sex and its effect on a woman’s womb.

For low-risk pregnancies, sex is considered safe, advises a primer for doctors published this week in the Canadian Medical Association Journal. “Sex in pregnancy is normal,” write the authors. “There are very few proven contraindications and risks to intercourse in low-risk pregnancies, and therefore these patients should be reassured.” (More on Customized Kids: Parents Abort Twin Boys in Quest for Daughter)

But in instances where women are at increased risk of preterm labor or have complications such as placenta previa — where the placenta overlays the cervix — abstinence may be indicated. Yet even in situations where preterm labor is a consideration — a woman pregnant with multiples, for example, or one who has a history of delivering prematurely — experts are uncertain about whether sex during pregnancy can actually trigger labor.

The authors, two residents in obstetrics and gynecology and Dan Farine, the head of the maternal-fetal medicine department at the University of Toronto, initially compiled the recommendations as part of a Grand Rounds presentation to doctors, nurses and midwives at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto, where they work.

They got such positive feedback that they decided to turn the data into a resource doctors could use to counsel their patients. “There’s a lack of guidelines on sex in pregnancy in Canada and the U.S.,” says resident and co-author Crystal Chan. (More on Coming Soon, the Sex Ed Film Festival!)

Misconceptions (pardon the pun) abound. When Farine attended a symposium in Europe, a French doctor told colleagues he instructed his pregnant patients to use condoms so that prostaglandins, a substance in semen that softens and ripens the cervix in preparation for labor, wouldn’t induce an early delivery. An Italian physican, meanwhile, shared that he advised women to avoid orgasm because the resultant uterine contractions could lead to labor. “Therefore,” said the doctor, who was not without a sense of humor, “I tell patients they can have sex as much as they want — as long as they don’t enjoy it.”

In actuality, the Toronto researchers did find a study that attempted to analyze whether orgasm provoked labor, by connecting a bunch of pregnant women to a contraction monitor and telling them to have an orgasm. Only one woman succeeded; she did have uterine contractions, but they subsided after the orgasm ended. (More on Lovers Can’t Agree on Whether They Agreed to Embrace Monogamy)

In any case, it’s important to note that sex drive and libido fluctuate during pregnancy, says Chan. In general, as pregnancy progresses, sexual desire decreases.

So what to make of that tip you read online encouraging sex near your due date in order to jumpstart labor? Hogwash, say the authors, who find no evidence of an effect. That said, there doesn’t seem to be an obvious downside either, apart from the fact that getting jiggy while maneuvering a belly the size of a beach ball is not necessarily a turn-on.

Studies have shown that in women who are poised to go into labor, it probably helps, but in others, it does not, says resident and lead author Claire Jones.

But, she adds, “if you’re feeling comfortable and you want to try, why not?”