All parents would remember insisting a baby would not change their relationship.

With the benefit of hindsight – and after many broken nights’ sleep – reality sets in: once you’ve had a baby, your relationship with your partner changes forever.

As Johanna Baker-Dowdell discovers this doesn't have to be a bad thing.

Having a baby can be the making of a relationship, where both partners pull together to do something neither has done before. But so many people enter parenthood ill prepared and their relationship suffers.

Julie, mum of 18-month-old twins Tess and Sam, and her partner found themselves propelled into parenthood early when their babies were born eight weeks prematurely and spent two months in hospital. Instead of baulking at this, the couple thrived.
“As soon as the twins were born we were so close, closer than we've ever been, because we'd just produced these amazing little creatures,” Julie said.

“Neither of us could have done it on our own. We didn't have our babies to take home but we still had each other and every morning we'd be straight back up to the hospital to be a family again,” she said.

Once at home, the relationship altered as they coped with looking after their twins.

“I don't think you could ever prepare yourself for the sleep deprivation and what it does to you. It is the ultimate form of torture and affects every single thing you do in your day-to-day life,” Julie said.

“Pretty much every aspect of our relationship changed. Communication was poor, we didn't have the energy for a physical relationship and there didn't seem to be enough time in the day to do half of the things we needed to get done. There was very little time for each other.

“We have to be adaptable enough to accept change and work with it, rather than against it. After all, we both want the same thing - happy, healthy babies and a happy, healthy family,” Julie said.

After thinking their family was complete with two children aged seven and nine, Elissa and her partner had to negotiate the changes baby Daisy, now 21 months, brought.

“Daisy wasn’t planned,” Elissa said.

“Before we had Daisy our relationship was more like before we had kids. We’d got to know each other again without being ‘mum’ and ‘dad’,” she said.

Elissa said their relationship revolved around their three children and their communication skills and sex life suffered at times.

“Relationships do change with kids; with sex you have to time it. Sometimes we have the kids babysat and we go out,” she said.

“We went to a counsellor once when we weren’t listening to each other. You still have to work at relationships and there are times when things get rough, but we sit down and sort out our problems. We’ve got quite good communication and we don’t have any secrets. We’re more in tune now than we have been for so long.”

Anne Hollands, CEO Relationships Australia NSW, described having a child as a “crisis” for a relationship and recommended planning as vital to making it through the crisis together.

“Couples need to anticipate the crisis they are going to face when the first child is born. It is probably the biggest challenge to any relationship and many relationships never recover from the impact,” Ms Hollands said.

“Preparation is the key. Far more important than what the nursery looks like, or the size of the car, is doing a health check-up on the relationship. It’s not enough just to go to antenatal classes. It’s a strategic planning exercise. If you were running a business together, you would have a business plan to ensure you achieve your goals,” Ms Hollands said.

One of the biggest hurdles relationships face with a new baby is sleep deprivation. “Sleep deprivation affects everything – sex life, mood, productivity at work. Unless you address things, it’s not likely they will improve in time. They will resurface later on,” she said.

Ms Hollands' key recommendations include:

  • Look at the strengths and weaknesses of each partner to see what can be improved;
  • Get coaching or counselling for weak areas;
  • Agree courses of action for situations, like when one partner doesn’t feel loved, their child is sick, or the relationship deteriorates.

Taking these steps before the baby arrives can lead to a stronger and better relationship, as both partners understand the situation and what is expected of them, Ms Hollands said.

“You are taking a chance on your relationship surviving this crisis. If it’s important to you then invest, don’t gamble, in your relationship. Give it every single chance,” she said.

Many view having a child as the ultimate expression of a couple’s love. Julie sums it up well: “Love is so important. And children seeing their parents in love.”