It’s world breastfeeding week! I thought I would throw in my two cents on this topic. Why? Because physiotherapy is something that can help a lot when it comes to breastfeeding, but few people realize it.
So breastfeeding…it has made a popular comeback since the 60s, and with a vengeance too. That’s a really good thing since breastmilk is pretty much a miraculous substance that no laboratory can near replicate. There are many good reasons to breastfeed: the bond between baby and mom, the protection against illness or disease for both mom and baby, the boost for baby brain power and development, the convenience of it all, and the fact that it’s free.
But in my opinion, breastfeeding does have one down side…
That is the potential negative impact on your body.
I’m not really talking about saggy boobs or different sized breasts. Although it can be aesthetically frustrating, that doesn’t really negatively affect your ability to feed your baby. I’m taking more about the progressive changes to your joints, muscles, and fascia that can really impact your daily movement, physical function, and comfort level in your body.
This is REALLY important. Think about the cumulative effect of weeks, months, and years of being in one position and the impact to your health. I mean, how many hours do you log per week breastfeeding, especially a newborn? For me, I’ve going strong for almost 6 years with a short six month break in-between each of my four babies. Shoot, I basically have an undergraduate degree in breastfeeding!
I see it time and time again: women who start off with no muscle or joint complaints before breastfeeding can end up feeling like the Hunchback of Notre Dame by the time they’re done. I’m talking wrist pain, back pain, rib pain, numbness, neck pain, tingling, tight muscles, feeling weak, breathing changes…
All these changes to the musculoskeletal system and associated senorimotor cortext of the brain can start during a woman’s breastfeeding career.
So, what’s a nursing or pumping mom to do?!
Here are five ways you can save your body during your breastfeeding tenure – no matter how short or long that may be.
1) Practice body awareness and discover positions where your body feels balanced and tension free.
Gravity is a powerful force that is hard to fight. It will always try to pull you down. We can either begin to give way to that process (which can result in pain) or we can overcome it and win. How? Well, it’s not as hard as you think. Your body is naturally designed to handle various forces around you as you move through life.
When your head is stacked on top of your spine, your ribcage is stacked over your pelvis, and your pelvis is stacked over your feet, that is generally a good place to strike a healthy balance between all the opposing muscle groups that hold you upright. Think of muscles as a a system of pulleys holding a tower in place.
Now you might think this means you have to be perfectly straight or “stacked” all the time. No, this is not the case. In fact it is important for your body to have many options and many different ways of positioning and moving. There is no such thing as a “bad posture”.
But the problem is that instead of having multiple ways of lying, sitting, standing, walking, moving, most of us only have one or two set ways. We lack variability. We lack options. Our library of movement and position choices gets smaller and smaller as we age.
When we have only one program for a specific movement category, we can then get stuck in that pattern. As our bodies and brains begin to adapt to the one program, it forgets all the other options that are available. It can in fact begin to fear or avoid positions that “feel weird” because it has not been practicing or exposed to those positions or types of movements for a long time.
When we lack options for our bodies and nervous systems, we can end up experiencing discomfort and pain, which leads to even more limited movement…thus the cycle continues.
The first step in disrupting this cycle is to get in tune with your body.
As you’re breastfeeding, close your eyes and mentally scan through each region of your body, starting from the top of your head down to your toes. Pay attention and notice what you feel. What sensations are you aware of in your muscles, joints, bones? Is there tension? Is there effort?
Imagine yourself as a stack of blocks – your head block, neck, ribcage, low back, pelvis, legs, and feet. If you’re standing or sitting, try to detect and twists, shifts, compressions, tilts, or imbalances in each block. Try to understand the relationship between a specific block and its neighbours.
Ask yourself how it feels – how you feel. Then ask yourself what you can do to be better balanced from front to back, left to right, side to side, and try to make a micro-adjustment towards what feels better. Then re-scan your body. Check in with yourself to see how that adjustment feels.
If you need help with tuning in and cultivating body awareness, please make an appointment with us either in person or virtually. (And bring your baby so we can see how you usually position when breastfeeding).
2) Boobs need support.
During the breastfeeding years, breasts change size and shape. A lot. During the early days they can become larger than you ever thought possible. That sudden added weight can lead to changes in your neck and upper spine, the position of your shoulder blades, and breathing mechanics.
You may end up curling forward into your chest and breathing may become more restricted. Upper back muscles may become become overstretched and weak. Chest muscle become short and tight. You may adopt positions through your lower spine and pelvis which can negatively impact function.
The larger the breasts, the more support is needed. Support your breasts externally by investing in several really good quality nursing bras. (The higher end cost of a good nursing bra is worth it since you’ll likely be wearing them day in and day out for a number of months.)
Support your breasts internally by keeping your shoulder girdle and upper back muscles strong. Talk to a personal trainer or your physio about helpful exercises for your upper body.
3) Explore different nursing positions.
There are many ways to nurse a baby. You don’t have to feel confined to the classic rocking chair, cradle position. Although sitting is certainly an option (and often most practical), I will say that sitting all the time can cause a lot of tightness in the hips, weakness in the gluts, and motor control changes to your core. Instead of sitting all the time, why not try other positions such as semi-reclined or fully reclined with the baby lying on you?
Other positions are side lying with your baby next to you. If you’re nursing a baby that has head control or a toddler, you can sit with your little one straddling you and facing your chest. You can also nurse your baby in a sling or some other type of carrier. Talk to a lactation consultant to figure out what the best positions are for you and your baby because obviously the age, stage, and your milk supply are important factors to consider as well.
4) Use props and supports.
Nursing pillows, neck pillows, large blankets, small blankets, lumbar supports, upper back supports and garments, proprioceptive tape…..
Use whatever it takes to help take the pressure and strain off your body. This is especially important if you’re nursing for long periods of time or if you have a heavy baby or a baby who is unable to hold up his or her own weight yet. Using supports will enable your body to relax and will help you avoid carrying excess tension in your muscles. It will also help your baby feel more comfortable.
Once you’ve determined what position you’re going to breastfeed in, carefully position your prop of choice, then fully relax your shoulders, upper back, arms, neck, and pelvis. Latch your baby. Adjust your prop as needed. Then take a full breath in, and on your exhale let all tension in your body go.
If you find that your baby drops a bit or is unable to maintain a latch, it’s a sign that you’re holding yourself in a certain position in order to breastfeed, and not making full use of the prop. Adjust accordingly and try again.
I know it takes some playing around to find a truly comfortable position – but trust me, your body will thank you in the long run.
You can move WHILE breastfeeding by looking up from your baby from time to time. If you are sitting, you can move your neck backwards, tilt your head side to side, or rotate it from left to right. Move slowly and mindfully. Move without pain and see if you can move into deeper ranges of motion after several repetitions.
You can also do a few stretches immediately AFTER nursing that will help open up your body from that curled and compressed position. Here are some ideas:
- Roll your shoulders forward then backwards
- Bring your arms overhead and stretch your upper back and shoulders
- Bring your arms out to the side (like the letter T) to stretch out your pecs and chest
- Bend your trunk side to side
- Do a few rotations or twists through your spine
- Remember to breathe fully to expand your rib cage several times as well
It will literally take you one or two minutes to do all these simple movements. Putting in the time after each nursing session will help to maintain your range of motion, improve circulation, counteract muscle stiffness and shortening, and help keep your joints fluid. It really does make a difference.
If you’ve got a bit more time on your hands then stretch, out your lower body as well, especially the hip flexors, groin, and deep gluteal muscles, especially if you tend to sit a lot to breastfeed.
Really, the best thing you can do is to cultivate a lifestyle of movement. Let’s be honest, a 5 second stretch once every couple of days isn’t going to make a huge dent in the accumulated hours of non-helpful positions and postures.
However, if you start to make movement a priority in your life, it will go a much longer way to offsetting the negative effects of static positions or a limited movement options. Think of one way to add more movement to your life (for example, taking the stairs in your apartment, walking to work, sitting on the floor instead of couch 50% more often…) Then just do it.
6. Bonus benefit for your boobs.
Did you know you can see a physiotherapist to get therapeutic ultrasound treatment for blocked ducts? Typically only one or two sessions are needed to completely clear the blockage! You can also learn how to do a breast massage on yourself to keep breast tissue and underlying muscles in good health.
Well there you have it. Nursing and cuddling cute squishy little babies is one of the best things in the world. But don’t let it destroy your body. You’ve got only one and you need it to work for you during the rest of your life too. If you would like some more guidance with any of the above points, please don’t hesitate to book an appointment at our office. And fyi, we are breastfeeding friendly!
Happy World Breastfeeding Week.