Oh, My Aching Back

Mom exercises with baby at home, in a story about exercises to relieve postpartum back pain.
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Dealing With Postpartum Back Pain? Physical Therapists Share Their Tips

No, you don’t just have to deal with it.

It’s easy to chalk up a little back pain to just getting older. Everyone’s back hurts, right? Yes, but pregnancy hormones cause the body’s joints and ligaments to loosen. Combine that with carrying your baby everywhere and hunching over to feed them, and you have a recipe for postpartum back pain. And after just delivering a literal human being, you deserve a back that backs you up, not one that drags you down.

The good news is there are so many little tweaks you can make at home to relieve your aching back, and experts say consistent strength building and stretching will solve your postpartum back pain, no problem. So, grab your yoga mat and get your baby set up for tummy time nearby. You can both work on strengthening your backs together.

What causes postpartum back pain?

During pregnancy, your body produces a hormone called relaxin, which loosens up all your muscles, joints, and ligaments. It allows your body to make room for a growing baby, and for your pelvis to shift in preparation to have a baby travel through it. Relaxin is pretty helpful, except that it has that loosening effect on your whole body. Your abdominal muscles can also be weakened by supporting your baby bump for nine months.

And now that your baby is here, you probably find yourself carrying them everywhere, bending over cribs and bassinets to pick them up, and practicing very bad posture while feeding them or focusing on getting them to latch. (Honestly, with so many reasons for your back to hurt, it’d be weird if it didn’t.)

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How to relieve postpartum back pain

Physical therapists recommend strengthening your back and abdominal muscles, which support your back, while also stretching them regularly, in order to keep the pain at a minimum. Between the two, most run-of-the-mill aches and pains should ease off or go away entirely. They also tell their patients to think about changing up how they hold, carry, and lift their little ones.

Exercises & stretches for postpartum back pain

If you’re tired of taking ibuprofen and being glued to your heating pad, try these physical therapist-approved moves to reduce back pain:

  • Cat-cow poses: “On hands and knees, arch the back up and lower the head down. Then, slowly reverse to bring your head up and raise your back to a flat position,” says Barbora Vystejnova, MS, PT, DPT, PRPC, women’s health physical therapist for Baptist Health Jacksonville.
  • Child’s pose: “I recommend gentle postnatal yoga to a lot of my patients,” says Brook Orvis, PT, DPT, physical therapist at Duke Health. “Child’s pose is really helpful to stretch those back, lateral, side, and lower back muscles. While in child’s pose, bring your hands over to one side or the other to help.”
  • Bridges: “Start lying on your back with your arms at your sides, activate your core, and then slowly lift your hips off the surface, maintaining core activation the entire time. Then slowly lower back down,” says Caitlyn O’Sullivan, PT, DPT, physical therapist at Baptist Health Jacksonville.
  • Pelvic rotations: Orvis says to think of Shakira or Beyoncé for this stretch. While standing, make circles with your hips clockwise and counterclockwise to release tension in your lower back.
  • Strengthen your shoulder blades: Hold a resistance band in both hands, then pull your hands out and apart while trying to pull your shoulder blades together. (If you want to YouTube a demo, this move is called a “scapular retraction,” Orvis says.)
  • Stretch your pecs: Find a corner or doorway. Press one hand on the wall or doorframe and lean into a lunge position. This should help loosen any tightness in your chest, which in turn will benefit your back, says Orvis.

Lifestyle changes to reduce postpartum back pain

For many parents — whether they’re the one who gave birth or not — feeding the baby can be a major source of back pain. When you’re worried about getting your baby to latch, suck, and not spit up, you’re not focusing much on maintaining good posture. And when you spend so much time each day leaning over and feeding your baby, well, it adds up.

“For most of my patients who’ve just had kids recently, I recommend using an assistive device like a Boppy or My Breast Friend,” says Orvis. “It really helps with keeping the baby closer to your chest so the parent isn’t having to hunch over while feeding the baby, keeping a neutral spine alignment.”

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It can help to alternate how you hold the baby for feedings, Orvis adds. “For people who are nursing, there are different holds for how you hold your baby, and they can apply to bottle-feeding parents, too. Some good nursing positions would be the football hold, cradling your baby in front of you, or laying on your side. That can help take pressure off your back.”

For your back’s sake, you should also have a few places to feed your baby that are set up to support you while you do it.

“Make sure your back is supported, like if you're sitting in a recliner or rocker, sit with support under the feet or legs, like a foot stool. If you’re in bed, sit with good posture with your back against the bed frame,” Orvis says.

As for lower back pain postpartum that you feel most when picking up or carrying your baby, O’Sullivan and Orvis recommend:

  • Engage your core when rolling over, bending over, or lifting to prevent extra strain on your lower back. To do this, Orvis says to imagine you’re trying to zip up a pair of tight pants. It should feel like a gentle muscle contraction deep in your core, and won’t engage the six-pack muscles.
  • When lifting your baby out of a crib or pack and play, stand as close to it as possible and face your baby. This prevents any lifting and twisting motions that would strain the back. Always bend at the knees or hips when you lift instead of bending your back.
  • When carrying your baby, try to hold them near the middle of your torso (like where a baby carrier would position them) to distribute their weight evenly. If you carry them on one side or the other, try to alternate sides as much as possible.

If you feel any discomfort during these exercises, these experts recommend you stop immediately and make an appointment with a physical therapist to figure out what’s up. It’s also helpful to schedule a visit if you just want some extra guidance on how to get your back, back to 100%.

“If you’re at six weeks postpartum and you're still having aches and pains, or not feeling great, that’s the time I’d let your OB-GYN know so they can give you a referral to come in and see a physical therapist, or you can refer yourself. If you weren't having back pain and you notice it’s becoming a regular daily thing in your life, come in and see someone before it progresses.”

Experts:

Barbora Vystejnova, MS, PT, DPT, PRPC, women’s health physical therapist for Baptist Health Jacksonville

Brook Orvis, PT, DPT, WCS, PRPC, CLT, physical therapist at Duke Health

Caitlyn O’Sullivan, PT, DPT, physical therapist at Baptist Health Jacksonville