Having Trouble Falling Asleep After Sex? You’re Not Alone

For some women, sex before bedtime paves the way for a night of restful sleep. For others, it triggers hours of tossing and turning. Here’s why — and what to do about it.

Man and woman resting in bedroom, having fun.
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Watch a movie — any movie! — and you’ll see couples drifting off into deep, relaxing sleep right after sex. If that’s your postcoital experience, consider yourself lucky and enjoy the blissful combination of intimacy and quality sleep. But if you find yourself wide awake after nighttime sex — even if you were drowsy beforehand — you’re not alone. Here’s why it is hard for some women to fall asleep after sex and what could be going on.

Women and sleep

While studies show that women sleep an average of 11 to 13 more minutes per night than men, women’s sleep tends to be of poorer quality. One reason is hormone fluctuations, which can be triggered by menstruation, pregnancy, or menopause. Dips in estrogen lead women to spend less time in REM sleep, meaning they wake up feeling less rested. Women who are mothers are also two-and-a-half times more likely to lose sleep over helping others at night and report that their sleep satisfaction doesn’t return to normal after becoming a parent for at least six years (or way longer if you ask most moms, but hey, that’s how long the study was). Add in the fact that the amount of unpaid labor — such as decision-making, information tracking, and anticipating the needs of their families 24/7 — rose an unbelievable 153% between March 2020 and February 2021, and is it really any surprise that women are more likely to have a complicated relationship with sleep?

In fact, women are 40% more likely to develop insomnia than men. “Women are doing incredible amounts of nurturing, caregiving, and breadwinning,” says Dr. Qanta A. Ahmed, a board-certified sleep disorders specialist at NYU Langone Sleep Medicine Associates in Garden City, New York. “And they also want to perform to the best possible expectations of themselves and their partners.” However, problems arise, says Ahmed, when we watch the news, interact online, and help kids with homework until all hours. “There are expectations that sleep should be immediately attainable, but we have almost no room in our lives — no routine, no space — for unwinding.” In other words, our habits and daily routines aren’t doing us any favors when it comes to sleep.

Why falling asleep after sex is hard for some women

Given the challenges that many women experience trying to wind down ahead of sleep, there is great interest in the impact on sleep following the complex psychological and biochemical processes that occur during sex. A 2016 review of research concluded that sexual intercourse can improve sleep for women who suffer from insomnia because intimacy produces the hormone oxytocin (the “love hormone,” which is triggered by physical closeness and orgasm) and inhibits cortisol (the “stress hormone”), thereby setting the scene for sound sleep.

In another study, 59% of women reported sleeping better after having sex with a partner. However (and this is a big however), 11% reported the opposite, which maybe isn’t surprising since engaging in sexual activity before sleep can feel to some women almost like being “shaken awake,” according to Dr. Greg Marchand, a board-certified physician in obstetrics and gynecology in Arizona, who has researched women’s sexual satisfaction and dysfunction. “Orgasm involves both the sympathetic nervous system, which reacts to dangerous or exciting stimuli, and the parasympathetic system, which is associated with a relaxed, calm state,” says Marchand. And if women don’t orgasm during sex, the nervous system remains in a state of excitement, which could further contribute to a state of wakefulness. “It’s very interesting that [orgasms] use both the sympathetic and the parasympathetic system[s].They’re systems that get you excited, as if a dangerous stimul[us] like a wolf enters the room; [it’s] your fight-or-flight mechanism, but it also uses the opposite of that to achieve orgasm. So it’s, you know, it’s a very tricky nervous system chain of events that’s going on, and it makes total sense that it sometimes causes trouble for either waking you up or putting you to sleep when you want it to do the opposite,” Marchland explains.

Another reason women may struggle to get to sleep after sex involves the chemical prolactin and how it reacts with our bodies. Prolactin is produced during sex but affects men and women very differently. “For men, it really tends to interact in a way with dopamine, [and] that tends to make us feel more sleepy ... to suppress dopamine,” says Dr. Chris Winter, founder of the Charlottesville Neurology and Sleep Medicine Clinic, author of “The Sleep Solution,” and Sleep.com Sleep Advisor. “For women, though, it can actually have a slightly different effect and create more of a wakefulness situation.” Winter explains that this can help explain why some men fall asleep easily after sex, while women feel energized and awake.

Emotions and expectations can also play a part in post-coital insomnia. In fact, our mindset, stress levels, body image, and feelings toward our partner can all factor into how we might feel after sex and if we’ll be ready for sleep, says Jessica Byrd, a licensed clinical social worker and therapist in Arizona who specializes in women’s mental health and sexual dissatisfaction. “Anytime we don’t follow a script that’s been normalized, we can find ourselves wondering, What’s wrong with me? Why isn’t my body working the way that it’s supposed to?” says Byrd. Add in the pressure levied by media portrayals of women almost unanimously enjoying sex late at night (after the kids have gone to bed and the dishes are done) plus the resentment that can bubble up if a partner is able to fall asleep easily after sex, and it becomes easy to see why sleep after sex can be a stress trigger for many women.

Four tips for falling asleep after sex

If you have trouble sleeping after bedtime sex, know that you are not alone and that your problem is not uncommon. Here are factors to consider and a plan of action.

Make peace with natural sleep changes

Yes, nighttime sex might have some impact on your quality of sleep, but how you sleep shifts over time. “As women age, there are changes to the depth of sleep and the amount of fragmentation in the sleep of both men and women,” says Winter. In fact, everyone gets worse at sleeping as we age. We also simply need less of it. “For a lot of people, the struggle is not with an inability to sleep; it’s with sleep efficiency,” says Winter. In other words, we may get the same sleep, just over a longer period, and sleeping all the way through seven hours feels better than seven hours spread out over nine hours, explains Winter.

So if you’re having trouble falling asleep after nighttime sex, try not to pressure yourself into the idea of needing to go to bed at a certain time, especially if you find yourself not sleeping soundly. Instead, stay up a bit later so that you condense your sleep time. “Think of it like squeezing the air bubbles out of your sleep,” suggests Winter.

Speak up

Just because everyone’s doing it at night in the movies doesn’t mean that’s in the script for you. If sex before bed isn’t working for you, explain your issues to your partner so it doesn’t develop into animosity and frustration. “It’s not about apologizing,” says Byrd. “It’s more about collaborating with your partner to figure how to name what’s going on and work on solving it together.”

Make a plan

For many couples, especially those with young kids, evening might seem like the only time to be intimate without interruption. But try to be open to other options even if they’re out of your comfort zone. “We know that exercise can impede sleep, so many people change the timing of when they work out,” says Winter. He recommends that the same strategy can be used for sex. If you can, schedule intimacy a little earlier, and then don’t beat yourself up for wanting — or needing! — to read a few chapters of a good book afterward instead of drifting off to sleep while cuddling. Or if the kids are out of the house during the day, you can take advantage of the time alone to prioritize intimacy. Anytime that works for you can work for sex.

Stop stressing

Turns out that agonizing over the possibility of a disruption to your habitual wind-down routine can actually make it a reality. “How we think about our sleep tends to impair our performance,” says Winter. In addition, “Sometimes people just don’t sleep well,” says Winter. But worrying about your sleep can impact not only your sleep health but also your sexual appetite. Being at peace with the process of easing yourself into sleep can facilitate a healthier mindset all around.

Sex and sleep — and how they interact — are as individual as you are, no matter what the studies say, and that’s OK. “Give yourself permission to do what works for you and your body,” says Byrd.