You are seven months pregnant: Your skin itches, you are short of breath, you have hemorrhoids, leg cramps, heartburn, indigestion and achy muscles and it’s possible you aren’t feeling all that sexy.
But a new study finds that despite a long-held belief to the contrary by much of the medical establishment, women who are sexually active late in pregnancy do not run an increased risk of pre-term delivery.
Doctors have historically considered sex late in pregnancy a risk for pre-term birth because an orgasm releases a hormone called oxytocin, which may induce uterine contractions and possibly birth. Pre-term births are problematic because they are linked to higher infant mortality.
Amy Sayle, who conducted the research as part of graduate work at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill's School of Public Health, hopes the results of this study will "help remove needless worrying," about a subject many women find difficult to discuss with their obstetricians.
In a survey of more than 600 women from prenatal clinics in North Carolina, researchers found that frequency of orgasm or intercourse in weeks 29 to 36 of pregnancy was not related to early deliveries. "This study provides good evidence of a lack of harm associated with sexual activity late in pregnancy," says Sayle.
Researchers interviewed 187 women who delivered pre-term, or before 37 weeks, and 409 women who delivered at full term, and reported finding no link between sexual activity levels and the early deliveries — even after adjusting for factors such as race, age, education, and whether the woman was living with a partner. The study appears in the February issue of Obstetrics & Gynecology.
Be Frank With Your Physician
Of the women surveyed, Sayle says about half did not discuss sex with their doctors, and those who did report receiving advice were just told to "be careful." She suggests women be frank with their physicians, even if it's a little uncomfortable, saying, "My impression is that women are curious about it but won't initiate the conversation."
Some doctors do bring up sex with their pregnant patients, however, and even recommend it. "It really depends on the patient's history," explains Oscar L. Mims Jr., director of Maternal Fetal Medicine at Washington Hospital Center in Washington D.C. "In fact as we get near term, we sometimes encourage intercourse [to induce delivery], but you have to address each situation individually."
Mims warns, however, that women who are at risk for early deliveries, should not engage in sexual activity in the last few months of pregnancy. Also, women with circlage, or a stitch in their cervix, bladder infections and fibroids should abstain during the weeks ahead of delivery, he says.
A 32-year-old mother from Great Neck, Long Island, who is currently pregnant with her fifth child, says she has heard lots of advice about how to avoid early deliveries, "Some people even told me not to walk on the beach."
But she has ignored the warning, saying, "I had sex all the way to the end in all my pregnancies — with variable amounts of pleasure."