Your first child: The ultimate relationship test?

A baby is a major life change that can stress even a strong relationship.

13 June 2016
by Glynis Horning

It's a sobering thought: within three years of the birth of a first baby, about 70% of couples have a noticeable drop in the quality of their relationship, according to research by the Gottman Relationship Institute in the US. (See here for more on this study.)

But fortunately if you know what the problems are, prepare for them, have realistic expectations, and keep committed to your partner, your relationship cannot just survive, but will grow stronger. Here’s advice on how to cope with the inevitable challenges you will face with the birth of your first child.

1. Tiredness

Everyone warns you of the sleepless nights, but the effects of sleeplessness are insidious, leaving you less able to cope with stress, anxious, irritable and primed to snap or bicker – usually at the person closest to you. 

Take action: “Sleep when your baby does, even if it means leaving laundry and other chores,” says Sister Anna Marie Viljoen, midwife, doula and manager of the maternity ward at Life Cosmos Hospital in Witbank. 

If baby is not sleeping, work with your paediatrician to find any underlying problem and solve it. Take up offers from family or friends, or if you can afford it, hire a helper to free you for a few hours a day to sleep. And be aware of how your mood is affected – watch your reactions with your partner.

2. Chores

Feeding, burping, changing and bathing your baby are demanding in themselves, and keep you from other home and work tasks. If one of you feels the other is not pulling their weight, resentment quickly builds. Couples often make assumptions about who will do what, shaped by the way their parents did things, and the result can be resentment, confusion and conflict. 

Take action: Discuss and decide on a fair division of chores, preferably before baby is born. Be specific, but stay flexible – if dad is let off his duties for a night out, he's more likely to reciprocate, and vice versa. And lower standards if need be: Dad's nappies may not fit as well as yours, but let him do things his way. “Most importantly, say thanks and express appreciation,” says Viljoen. (A useful parenting tool, too!) 

3. Intimacy

Sex invariably takes a knock in the early weeks, when there's pain (or fear of it) after delivery, especially with an episiotomy or tearing, and vaginal dryness from fluctuating hormones. Body image can take a knock, not helped by images of sylph-like Hollywood moms. And after a day nursing, some moms simply feel 'touched out'. Dads can feel left out, and suffer silently. Lack of sleep and new responsibilities can also affect their libido.

Take action: Make time for the two of you each day. Just exchanging hugs and loving words will help keep you feeling bonded. Try to find 20 minutes to unwind together, and talk about something other than baby. And arrange a periodic couple night, when somebody takes baby. “Just snuggling and spooning while you watch a movie at home, without expectations of sex, can boost a relationship, and lay the loving groundwork for resuming intimacy later,” says Viljoen.

Lots of relationships take a dip when a baby arrives, but most recover when you have more sleep again, share the load, and keep communicating your love.

For more info

Read these studies to learn more about this topic: