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Looking down at my newborn boy, whose slow, rhythmic sucking matched the metronome of my heartbeat, I felt tears forming at the corner of my eye.
But these weren’t tears of joy; they were tears of pain. My neck, my back, my shoulders — everything — felt stiff, sore and tense.
As much as I wanted to relax, I simply couldn’t. Instead of enjoying the breastfeeding experience, I often found myself counting down the minutes until it would be over (insert major mom guilt here).
I later learned that the pain I was experiencing was fairly common in breastfeeding women and — more important — it was fixable.
Well, much of the pain stems from one common culprit — posture.
“Moms often think there couldn’t be a much more physically challenging time than pregnancy and delivery … until they meet the physical demands of the first year postpartum,” said Dr. Jessica Peterson, a chiropractor, mom and part-owner of Lake Pointe Chiropractic in Minneapolis.
A new mom twists her body into many challenging postures on any given day, including bending down and twisting, lifting, carrying and nursing in whichever position works best for Baby (but perhaps not her).
On top of that, the postpartum body is still recovering from the significant changes of pregnancy and childbirth — many of which make it harder to maintain good posture.
“Whether a baby was delivered naturally or by Cesarean, the abdominal muscles are weakened after being stretched,” said Jennifer Missling, a physical therapist and director of rehabilitation for Physicians’ Diagnostics & Rehabilitation Clinics in the Twin Cities.
Additionally, there’s less support for the lower back, and many women continue to experience joint instability postpartum due to hormone-induced laxity, or looseness, in their ligaments and connective tissues.
Mothers and fathers who exclusively bottle feed their babies can suffer neck/back pain because of poor posture, too.
Erin Schwanger of South Saint Paul (Above in main photo) nurses her baby, Eleanor (pictured at 3 months old). Using a pillow behind her back for lumbar support — plus a foot rest to help her sit up straight — are two ways in which she’s maintaining a sustainable, comfortable nursing posture.Factor in fatigue, sleep deprivation and the new (and numerous) demands of newborn care, and it can be easy to see how many new moms and dads forget about their posture, especially during the time-demanding activity of feeding. Photo by Sarah Karnas
Mothers often hunch over toward their babies while breastfeeding, creating “a forward head and rounded shoulder position, which puts stress on the neck and mid-back,” Missling said. “Aches and pains, headaches, and muscle strain can often be a result of faulty postures and load intolerance — when the mechanical demands on the body exceed the endurance and strength of the spine.”
Peterson said repetitive stress from poor breastfeeding postures can result in pain, fatigue, muscle spasms, headaches and even spinal misalignments.
Not only can this pain affect mom’s mood and sleep, but it can also impact the ever-important bond between mother and baby.
“Postural stress can lead to ongoing neurologic stress, making it more difficult for mom and baby to calm down and [enjoy] a more positive nursing experience,” Peterson said.
By fixing common postural mistakes and following a few posture-friendly tips, mothers can drastically reduce the level of discomfort they experience from breastfeeding — resulting in better sleep, better mood and better bonding with Baby.
Rachel Guyah is a Bloomington-based writer and mother. Follow her musings about motherhood at themamalogs.com.
Most of these tips can also apply to bottle-feeding. No matter how you feed your baby, practice these posture-friendly tips to minimize aches and pains!
Bring Baby to you.
When breastfeeding, remember to relax and sit upright in a comfortable position, bringing your baby to your breast (not the other way around).
Many new moms hunch forward to bring their breasts to their babies — and then stay in that slumped position for the entire feeding session. Moreover, they often nervously stare down at the latch for the entire nursing session. Dr. Jessica Peterson, a Twin Cities chiropractor, calls this hunched-over, head-down position a “postural nightmare,” as it puts a lot of strain on the neck, shoulders and upper back.
While you may be tempted to gaze lovingly at your beautiful bundle of perfection during breastfeeding, try to look up instead (or take frequent breaks). Craning your neck forward and down for prolonged periods can cause a lot of stress to the cervical spine.
Peterson said many moms who come to her with pain and headaches learn they’ve been leaning their neck too far forward during nursing.
Ditch the cell phone.
Resist the urge to skim Facebook, check Instagram or text friends during those long nursing sessions. It’s too easy to slip into bad postural habits like slouching and tilting your head/neck forward during cell phone use.
Not-so-fun fact: Every inch forward you tilt your head adds an additional 10 pounds of weight for the spine to bear.
Wondering what to do instead? Here are a few posture-friendly ways to pass the time during those feeding sessions:
- Listen to an audiobook.
- Catch up on your latest TV show obsession.
- Fuel up with snacks and water.
- Listen to music and/or discover new artists.
This promotes proper posture, distributes weight and reduces pressure on the spine. Jennifer Missling, a Twin Cities physical therapist, recommends keeping the upper back flat against the back of the chair. If your feet can’t touch the ground when you’re sitting back on the chair, use a footstool or ottoman.
Use a variety of positions.
This can reduce repetitive strain/stress and help you discover which positions feel most comfortable for you. If the traditional cradle, cross-cradle and football positions cause discomfort, try the side-lying position.
“This is often an underutilized position that can be very enjoyable and reduce postural stress for mom and baby,” Peterson said.
Use (multiple) pillows.
Both Missling and Peterson suggested using a nursing pillow, which helps position your baby at breast level and takes his or her weight off mom’s arms, shoulders and back. If the nursing pillow doesn’t position your baby high enough, add a small pillow underneath it.
Missling recommends also adding a lumbar support cushion for behind the back, which helps promote proper posture by supporting the natural curvature of the lower spine.
Post-nursing stretching can go a long way to minimizing chronic pain and tightness. After each feeding session, try this series of stretches, recommended by Peterson, which she dubbed the “after-nursing miracle minute”:
- Do a series of neck and shoulder rolls.
- Reach your arms back, then up to the sky.
- Stretch from side to side.
Get help from a pro.
If you’re feeling chronic pain and tension from breastfeeding, don’t hesitate to seek outside support. There are a variety of professionals who can help, including chiropractors, physical therapists, massage therapists, lactation consultants and yoga and Pilates instructors.
Work it out
Try these easy, at-home exercises to stretch and strengthen muscles in the chest, neck and back for improved breastfeeding/feeding comfort, courtesy of Jennifer Missling, a physical therapist and director of rehabilitation for Physicians’ Diagnostics & Rehabilitation Clinics in the Twin Cities.
- Neck extension: Support the back of the neck with both hands (fingers interlaced). Extend the neck backward. Hold for 5 to 10 seconds. Repeat 5 times.
- Standing chest stretch: Stand in a doorway. Place your palms and forearms on each side of the door frame. Place one foot in front of the other and gently lean forward, leading with your chest. Hold for 20 to 30 seconds. Repeat 2 to 3 times.
- Upper-back stretch (SHOWN ABOVE): Lie on your back with a foam roller or towel roll placed perpendicular to your body under your shoulder blades. Supporting your neck with your hands (fingers interlaced) — and with your feet flat on the floor in front of you with knees bent — extend and arch your upper back over the roll. Hold 20 to 30 seconds. Repeat 2 to 3 times.
- Alternating arm and leg lifts (SHOWN ABOVE): Start on your hands and knees, with your hands directly below your shoulders and knees directly below your hips. Maintaining a deep core contraction, simultaneously extend one arm out in front of you and while extending the opposite leg behind you. Hold this position for 10 seconds. Alternate sides, keeping your pelvis level. Repeat up to 12 times.
- Bridge: Lie on your back with your feet flat on the floor, legs bent, arms at your sides. While contracting your abdominals, use your hip and buttock muscles to slowly lift your hips off the floor. Hold for 10 seconds. Lower your hips slightly and lift again using your buttocks to lift your hips up. Repeat up to 12 times.
- Plank: Place your forearms and knees on the floor. Raise your hips until your body is in a plank position, balancing on your knees (or toes, if you can do a full plank). Hold this position as long as possible, working up to one minute. Repeat shorter holds up to 3 times.
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