As new mothers we spend many hours of the day and night feeding our babies. Too often we unconsciously slouch into positions that stress our joints, ligaments, and muscles. This habit aggravates postpartum postural problems, and can cause painful muscle spasms and injury. Most couches and chairs are designed for style, not ergonomics, and provide insufficient support to the lower back. When it comes to furniture, one size definitely does not fit all, especially for women.
Without proper lower back support, it can be almost impossible to avoid rolling back onto the tailbone or sacroiliac joints as we sit and feed our babies. This position curves the spine, collapses the chest, and rounds the shoulders forward. Sitting for long periods of time with poor posture further stresses already lax postpartum ligaments, compresses vertebral disks, and increases muscular imbalances in the torso and shoulder girdle. And the result is PAIN!
Many new moms tend to bring their breast down to their baby during nursing, rather than bringing their baby up to their breast. Rounding the upper back makes the nipple hang downward at an poor angle for feeding. Large-breasted women often feel that they must lift the breast and turn the nipple with one hand so that it faces directly outward while nursing. This places a lot of strain on the wrist. In most cases, the nipple hangs at a poor angle because the mother’s shoulders and upper back are rounded. When the spine is in the neutral position, the nipple automatically lifts to an advantageous angle for feeding.
Because carpal tunnel syndrome and other repetitive stress injuries of the hand and wrist are common after pregnancy, continually supporting the breast while feeding is not advisable. Also avoid crossing the legs, or placing one ankle across the opposite knee, while nursing. These positions stress ligaments in the lower back, reducing the integrity and stability of the pelvis.
Give your body a much needed break by setting up an ergonomic breast-feeding station in your house. You’ll need a well fitting chair with arm rests and one or more pillows to ensure that your spine and shoulders are in the best position possible. A large water bottle is a good idea too.
In the ideal sitting position, your pelvis and spine will be in a neutral position, with the natural "S" curves of your spine intact. If not using a foot stool, your feet should rest flat on the floor with a right angle at both your knees and hips. Your body weight should rest on the bottom of your pelvis -- your "sit bones". Most chair backs tilt slightly back. This means that your spine will be neutral and on a slight back diagonal.
You can use a lumbar support pillow, or roll a hand towel into a cylinder and place it behind the small of your back to help support your spine. Lean your upper torso back into chair and allow your shoulders to drop down the back. Lengthen the back of you neck and roll your chin toward your chest. The center of your ears, shoulders and hips should form one long line. Since the neutral position increases the distance between your breasts and your hips, you might need an extra pillow to elevate your baby to the correct height.
If your breasts still need support in the neutral position, roll up a small towel or receiving blanket and gently wedge it underneath your breast to increase comfort. Ideally, your baby should be well balanced and at the correct height, so that you do not need to continually use your arms and hands to support her body weight during feedings.
Pregnancy and childbirth alter the dynamic structure of your body on many levels, leaving you in a weakened state that is vulnerable to pain and injury. By utilizing good postural habits while caring for your newborn, you can avoid and/or solve many common postpartum physical complaints.
Helene Byrne is a former professional dancer, ACE (American Council on Exercise) certified Personal Trainer, and author of "Exercise After Pregnancy: How to Look and Feel Your Best." She teaches the Post-Pregnancy Exercise Workshops in the Montclair neighborhood of Oakland. For more information visit www.exerciseafterpregnancy.com