Arie Brentnall-Compton’s first son, Luke, weighed 20 pounds by the time he was three months old. Since Luke was the kind of baby who wanted to be close to his mom most of the time, Brentnall-Compton soon found she had a constant backache: “I really think I injured my back trying to carry him all the time in the ring sling I had,” she says.
Even a 10- or 12-pound baby gets pretty heavy after a long day in your arms and when you add in the weight of the diaper bag, car seat and other supplies you may be lugging around, it’s easy to see why your back might be sore.
The majority of new mothers, though, don’t experience much back pain, says Ottawa family physician Monica Brewer. “Backache is more common during pregnancy, thanks to the hormone relaxin, which relaxes the ligaments and makes the back more susceptible to pain.” For about 90 percent of women, this back pain eases once the baby is born, although it may take two or three months to completely resolve.
However, for women who had problems with back pain prior to getting pregnant, or who found their backache especially bad during pregnancy, carrying a baby can make things worse, Brewer explains. Some basic strategies may help:
“Using proper mechanics when picking up baby helps prevent injury to your back,” says Brewer. To pick up your baby from a bassinet or car seat, you should bend your knees so you’re squatting, rather than bending from the waist; keep your back straight as you hold the baby close to your body, then use the strength of your legs to straighten back up. Don’t bend over if you can avoid it, and don’t twist your body as you take the baby into your arms. If you’re getting your baby out of a crib, put the side down first, if possible, rather than trying to bend over and reach in.
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Brewer acknowledges: “It’s difficult to remember to do this every time, especially if you’re getting up in the night, but if you do it as often as you can, it becomes routine.”
Core muscle strength
“Many backaches or back injuries are caused by weak abdominal or core muscles,” explains Brewer. (Yes, those muscles — the ones that looked like jelly just after your baby was born….) Keeping these muscles strong can go a long way to preventing pain. If you can’t attend a postpartum exercise class, look for videos, aimed at new mothers, that help you firm up these important muscles.
You’re going to be feeding that baby a dozen or more times a day, so getting into a less-than-comfortable position can easily lead to back pain. Brewer says mothers should sit with their backs straight, using pillows to bring the baby to the breast, rather than hunching over to bring the breast to the baby. It can be helpful to rest your feet on a footstool or thick book.
“Try latching your baby on and feeding in front of a mirror,” Brewer suggests. “Sometimes you think you’re sitting straight when you’re really not, and seeing it in the mirror can help you adjust your position.”
“Baby carriers are an excellent tool for mothers,” Brewer says. “They reduce the amount of crying a baby does, and promote bonding. But if you have a backache, you need to be careful to get one that protects your back from further injury.
That’s Brentnall-Compton’s area of expertise: After her problematic experience with her first carrier, she began to research baby carriers and “baby-wearing” and now sells carriers from her home in Edmonton.
“For me, when I changed from a sling-type carrier to a two-shouldered carrier it was like ‘hallelujah,’” says Brentnall-Compton. “I was so much more comfortable.” She suggests parents look for:
- Wide, padded shoulder straps
- A belt or strap that goes around your hips, or a design that distributes some of the weight onto your hips
- A carrier in which baby is positioned facing inward toward you, and fairly high on your body
Brentnall-Compton adds that the baby needs to be sitting in the carrier, not dangling from it. “The fabric should spread from one of baby’s knees, across the baby’s bum, to the other knee. If it just covers the baby’s crotch, it will not be comfortable for him,” she explains.
What if, despite your best efforts, you do find yourself with a sore back? Brewer says new mothers can take acetaminophen for the pain and use ice packs followed by heating pads. Massage is also recommended.
But the most important tip? Don’t rest your back, at least not for more than half an hour or so (except when you sleep, of course). “Lying down and resting does feel good,” she admits, “but in the long run, it is better to work through the pain.”
When back pain is a sign of something serious
Most back pain in new mothers simply means they’ve strained or pulled the muscles, but in some cases back pain can signal more serious problems. Ottawa family physician Monica Brewer advises new mothers to contact their doctor if they have back pain with any of these symptoms:
- gets worse at night
- unexpected, rapid weight loss or unexplained fever
- doesn’t improve with the relief strategies listed in this story (painkillers, ice packs and heat and massage)
- numbness or a pins-and-needles sensation in the legs
- loss of control of bladder or bowels