Before I became a mom, I was a long-time runner, hitting the roads several times a week and lifting weights and stretching regularly. I had my share of aches and pains, but nothing serious—until my son, Ryan, was 6 months old. I developed a sharp, nagging pain in my right iliotibial band, which runs along the front of your hip.
I couldn’t run without pain until I realized that I always carried Ryan (who already weighed 18 pounds) on my right side. Once I started carrying him on my left hip as well, the ache disappeared. This kind of "parenting-related pain" is only one type that new moms often face.
The good news is that once you’re aware of your "weak links," you can protect them and reduce your risk of injury. Read on for the head-to-toe rundown on your most susceptible parts—and how to keep them healthy:
Your new baby may be a pain in the neck—literally. Often the problem is related to poor posture, especially for breastfeeding moms. You want to bring the baby to your breast, not "hunker down" over her, says certified personal trainer Mari Fasshauer, who has her master’s degree in kinesiology and owns Fitness Together in Wheaton and Glen Ellyn (www.ftwheaton.com).
"Make sure you’re comfortable," she says. "You can alter your position a little bit [as you nurse.] You don’t want to sit in the same position for an hour, so take advantage of switching sides to change your own position."
And while gazing at your baby is a bonding moment, keeping your chin tucked in will help protect your neck. "Keep your chin back as you put your head down so the entire weight of your head isn’t pulling on your neck—as if you had an orange between your chin and your chest," she adds.
Carrying your baby in a Baby Bjorn or similar carrier can also cause neck and upper back pain, says women’s sports specialist Dr. Nadya Swedan, author of The Active Woman’s Health and Fitness Handbook. Make sure that the carrier is properly fitted, and wear it for short amounts of time to avoid problems.
Wrist tendonitis, sometimes called "mommy thumb," causes pain at the base of your thumb into your wrist. "It comes from holding a baby with your thumb extended," says Swedan. "That thumb extension causes a lot of strain on that tendon."
Fasshauer had mommy thumb "big time" with her daughter, now 4. By tucking her thumbs underneath her daughters’ arms instead of extending them, she was able to lift her without aggravating the condition. "I was lifting with my arms and not with my wrists," she says. If the pain continues, see your doctor for a brace or cortisone shot.
Back sore? You’re not alone. According to The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 80 percent of all adults suffer from back pain at some point, but new moms are particularly susceptible. "The abdomen has been pulled forward, and anterior stress has been placed on the spine, mostly because of the weight gain [during pregnancy]," says Mary Lou Savino, a licensed physical therapy assistant and owner of Be Fit Personal Training and Pilates in Downers Grove (www.befitptp.com). "The ligaments become more lax during pregnancy, and sometimes right afterwards and you feel more sacroiliac [lower back] pain."
In addition, middle and lower back pain is often related to leaning over the changing table, says Swedan. "The changing table is uncomfortable because usually people are bent and rotated," says Swedan. "Move it … so you don’t have to bend and twist to look down at your child." She also suggests changing the baby on the bed occasionally, sitting with your legs spread out, the baby between them.
Strengthening your abdominal muscles, once you get the OK from your doc, will also help prevent and reduce back pain. And make sure that you use proper lifting techniques—bend your knees so that you’re lifting with your legs, not your back, and avoid twisting your body while you’re lifting your child. "Bring your baby close to your body before you lift up," says Fasshauer. "Always engage your belly button—pull your belly button straight back toward your back. That engages the tranverse abdominus muscle, which cinches the waist and supports the core."
The hormones that help make the ligaments around the hip joints lax before delivery can also cause hip or pelvic pain afterwards. But often the cause is habit—always carrying a child on one side. "Your pelvis isn’t level anymore, and you’ve got one side higher than other," says Savino. "That imbalance at the joint causes imbalance with the muscle."
Swedan adds: "I’ve seen people [who have] rotated the spine and pelvis because they have a couple of kids and they’re doing that repeatedly." To prevent this, alternate the side you carry your child on, use the stroller when possible and encourage your child to walk when she learns how.
As your child gets older, you may notice knee pain as well. Squatting and kneeling on the floor a lot can cause patellar-femoral, or kneecap pain, says Swedan. Usually it’s not serious, but doing simple leg raises can ease knee pain. Sit in a chair with your back supported and straighten your leg, flexing your quadriceps, the muscles that run along the front of your thigh, for a few seconds, and then returning to your original position. If your knees are still sore, try ice or ibuprofen.
Plantar facisitis, or PF, is another common malady in new moms. Standing around in bare feet on hard surfaces can cause PF; its major symptom is heel pain, which is worse in the mornings. Wearing soft, supportive shoes like Crocs or walking shoes during the day can make a big difference, says Swedan.
Fortunately a lot of mommy-related aches and pains are short-lived. If you have pain that lasts more than a week or two, or causes significant pain or discomfort, see a doctor to get treated, says Swedan.
Paying attention to how you hold and carry your child and taking a few minutes will help prevent problems. "You don’t have to do special stretches," says Fasshauer. "No one teaches a cat to stretch. Just use your instinct to stretch out and do what’s comfortable."
That’s one more reason to make time to exercise—even short walks can help keep you fit and flexible. Walking uses hip, abdomen, arm and leg muscles, and is a good all-around exercise for new moms—and helps prevent injury too. "As your abdomen and back and arm and leg muscles get stronger, it makes all the normal things you do with your baby easier," says Savino.
And isn’t that what every mom wants?
A stronger core for a better back
is your back bothering you? Core strengthening exercises only take a few minutes to perform, but they help not only reduce your risk of a back injury, they help flatten and tone your abs. The following moves are simple yet effective. Breathe slowly and evenly as you perform each one:
Abdominal curl: Lie on your back with your knees bent, feet flat on the floor, core muscles engaged, arms crossed over your chest. Curl your upper body so your shoulders come off the ground. Hold for a count of 10 and return to your original position.
Back bridge: Lie on your back on the floor with your knees bent, feet flat on the floor, arms at your sides. Lift your hips and lower back to form a straight line from your knees to your chest and hold for a count of 10. (As you become stronger, extend one foot at a time to make the move more challenging.)
Cat stretch: Face down on your hands and knees, hands under your shoulders and knees under your hips. Arch your back toward the floor, hold for 10 seconds and relax; then round out your back like an angry cat, hold for 10 seconds, and relax.
Pointer dog: Start in the same position as the cat stretch. Lift your right arm and your left leg up and extend them; hold for 10 seconds and then switch to the other side (left arm and right leg).
Side bridge: Lie on your left side, with your left arm bent. Engage your core muscles, straighten your back and support yourself on your left elbow and your left knee for 10 seconds; roll to your right side and repeat. As you become stronger, support yourself on your elbow and your feet, holding your body in one long line.
The danger zone: Childcare habits to avoid
Parenting babies and toddlers involves a huge amount of repetitive action: lift the baby, carry the baby, feed the baby, change the baby, repeat. But certain actions set you up for injury, and make you more likely to strain or pull a muscle.
Here’s a rundown on some of the dangerous habits to avoid:
• Sitting too long in any one position.
• Always carrying your child on the same side of your body.
• Lifting while bending over, or lifting while twisting—both make you more likely to hurt your back.
• Always lifting your child over the edge of the crib; slide the crib side down first.
• Ignoring pain as a signal to rest or change your biomechanics to prevent an injury from getting worse.