When my daughter was eight months old, I was pushing her in our stroller on a cloudless summer day. Suddenly, I felt my right side stiffen, and a strange pain shoot down my neck into my arm. Knowing something was terribly wrong, I limped home as best I could and collapsed on the bed.
Two weeks of sleepless, tear-filled nights and days of shooting pain followed. Finally, I had my diagnosis: two herniated discs in my neck. Desperately grappling to make sense of this sudden, unexpected injury I pushed the spine doctor for answers. What had I done? How did I not see this coming? He explained matter-of-factly that he saw new mothers all the time. Childbirth and the physical nature of parenting are such a trauma to the body that it doesn’t take much to cause additional injury.
Before I became a parent, I knew that it would be a very physical endeavor. But I was still unprepared to live this reality: wearing my baby strapped to my body, toting heavy diaper bags, pushing a stroller, hunching over my daughter as she crawled and walked, and twisting and lifting her into cribs, playpens, and car seats day after day.
With the aid of hindsight and the help of my gifted physical therapist, I have formed a mental list. Its’ a list of things I wish I had known about the body mechanics of parenting and things I wish I had done differently. It’s also the advice I now give to other parents of young children and parents-to-be.
1 | Mix it up
Do you always hold your baby on the same side? Do you always carry your heavy diaper bag with the same arm? Be careful! This can lead to an imbalance in muscle strength, which opens the door for injury. Before I hurt my neck, I always carried my baby on my left hip, so I could grab objects and open doors with my right hand. Now I make a conscious effort to vary how I hold my daughter to achieve balance on both sides of my body.
2 | Cross train
I was so eager to lose the baby weight that I focused almost exclusively on cardio whenever I had a moment to exercise. I went on long walks pushing the heavy stroller in the hope of burning a few more calories. In the process, I lost my core strength and flexibility. I wish I had included a few sessions of Pilates and yoga. Cross training and varying exercise activities are key to preventing injury.
3 | Beware of repetition
Parenting involves repeating the same motions again and again. If you find yourself moving in the same way too often, ask yourself if there is a way to change, reduce, or eliminate the activity. This is what I now do, in addition to asking for help whenever possible.
4 | Don’t carry more than you need
I shiver when I think back to my early outings with my newborn baby. Afraid that I would be caught without something we needed, I took it all with me. I hauled our overflowing diaper bag everywhere, lugging it with my fragile, postpartum body. Now I pause for a moment before heading out the door. Do I need everything in my purse? Sometimes a clean diaper, wipes, and snack are all you need.
5 | Get down
You wouldn’t lift a 30-pound weight at the gym without caution and preparation. Yet I see parents grab their kids all the time while standing, twisting, or even running. My physical therapist taught me how first to crouch down and pull my daughter to me before I lift her up from the ground. This isn’t always possible with a squirmy, energetic child, but I try to practice good lifting posture whenever I can.
6 | Practice smart baby wearing
I am a fan of baby wearing. It was a lifesaver when my daughter was tiny, fussy baby and many times since then. I think we can take this too far. There were many times when I could have easily used the stroller or put her on the floor. Now I am very conscious of my choices about how I transport my daughter. I vary baby wearing and stroller pushing, and I let others hold her too.
7 | Let them do it themselves
Once my daughter was able to walk and climb stairs, I encouraged her to do these things as much as possible. Not only to celebrate her new-found independence but to save my neck and back. If your child can walk to the car or the changing table, let them. Your body will thank you.
8 | Straighten out
There is so much twisting and imbalance involved in parenting. We lean in and out of the car, we bend and hunch over our children as they play on the floor, and we hold our babies on one hip. When I find myself twisting or hunching, I check in with my body and straighten up. This helps me to practice good posture throughout the day.
9 | Use your big muscles
My physical therapist taught me the importance of the body’s large muscles. When you use your core, your glutes, or your thighs to lift something, you reduce strain on the body’s more delicate areas, like the neck. I practice this when I lift. In addition to training the muscles that give us stability, I also continue to tone my body’s large muscles as much as I can. Don’t forget about these parts of the body and use them to your advantage.
10 | Listen to your body
For several weeks before my injury, my shoulder and neck just didn’t feel right. There were twinges and pains that should have warned me that something painful was coming. If you have strange soreness, aches, or pangs that don’t go away with rest, see your doctor. I wish I had.
It’s been six months since I injured myself. I still get sore easily and must do my physical therapy exercises every day. But I can now pick up my daughter, exercise, and enjoy life again. Armed with my new-found knowledge and awareness about body mechanics, I can face the physical challenges of parenting unafraid.
What are your physical challenges? What are the things you wish you had known to prevent them?
Disclaimer: I wrote this article with the advice and approval of my physical therapist, Kellie Lawton. However, I am not a medical doctor. If you have any specific questions about your body mechanics, posture, or pain, see your physician or a physical therapist.