Is Your Baby a Pain in the Neck (Literally)?
At 4:30 a.m. one fall morning, mother of four Heidi Pilawski felt a jolting pain in her lower back as she rushed to lift her crying toddler out of her crib.
“I knew right away that I had thrown out my back,” says Pilawski, who has suffered from chronic back pain since she became a mom. Because of the injury, both Heidi and her husband, who stayed home to take care of the kids while Heidi recovered, missed two days of work.
Everyday parenting tasks – getting a baby or toddler in and out of a car seat or crib, pushing a stroller, changing a diaper, dressing and feeding, and even just playing together – can take an enormous toll on the body and lead to injuries.
“I see new parents all the time with injuries such as back, neck and shoulder pain,” says physical therapist Lance Westcott. “It’s not just the moms, either. I also see many new dads with old injuries that have been exacerbated due to parenting responsibilities.”
Health experts say parents often suffer from repetitive-stress injuries that result from using poor posture to perform everyday tasks. Improper lifting and carrying of children, for instance, can injure ligaments, muscles, joints, tendons and spinal discs.
“Posture and body mechanics, followed by overall physical condition prior to parenthood, are the key factors in determining whether someone might be at risk of injury,” Westcott says.
And, although older parents are more likely to have prior injuries that worsen with parenting, age is not typically the main reason for injury.
Where We Make Mistakes
Car Seats – Car seats are always a problem area for parents. Either we’re running late and rushing to get our kids strapped in, or we’re wrestling with a squirming baby or toddler.
• Risky: What often happens is that parents twist their bodies and stretch across the car seat to get a child into the car. That action is hard on just about everything – knees, back, wrists, elbows, neck and shoulders.
• Safer: Place one foot in the car and face the car seat as you’re putting your baby or child in the seat. If you have a middle car seat, climb all the way into the car so that you are still facing the seat as you strap in your child.
• Risky: Parents of infants often make the mistake of carrying an infant car seat – with 15-pound baby in tow – across a forearm. This puts stress on the arm, shoulder and back.
• Safer: It’s much safer to put both hands on the handle of the seat and carry the seat in front of you, keeping your elbows bent.
Cribs – Cribs are notoriously difficult to lift babies and toddlers in and out of, especially in the middle of the night when proper body mechanics are the last thing on your mind.
• Risky: If you’re twisting and stretching across the crib to pick up your child, with your knees locked, you’re putting yourself at risk for injury.
• Safer: Instead, you should first lower the crib railing, plant your feet shoulder-width apart, and bend your knees as you lift your child, keeping him or her as close to you as possible. If necessary, use a stepstool to get the height you need to get your child out of the crib safely.
Lifting a Child from the Floor – A parent may lift a baby or toddler up to 50 times on any given day, so it’s important that we get it right.
• Risky: "A lot of times parents make the mistake of rounding their backs when picking up their children," says physical therapist Cheryl Eichner, who specializes in working with families of children with special needs.
• Safer: Instead, when you lift, you should keep your feet shoulder-width apart, keep your back straight, bend your knees, use both your arms to hold your child, keep your child close to your chest, and push up with your thigh muscles.
Holding/Carrying a Child – Just as there are right and wrong ways to hold or carry a heavy object, there are right and wrong ways to hold and carry a child.
• Risky: If you’re wearing a baby carrier, make sure it’s not sitting more heavily on one side of your body.
• Safer: Be sure the carrier has wide straps that can be adjusted to the right fit. Then make sure your baby is centered on your body. When you move, try to relax your shoulders and neck, and keep your shoulders in line with your hips.
• Risky: Try not to hold a toddler on your hip for a period of time. It’s a common mistake that creates postural imbalances and can lead to back pain and tissue damage in the arm that’s holding the child.
• Safer: Instead, always hold a child in the center, close to your chest, and stand with your feet shoulder-width apart to create a wide base of support.
• Risky: When leaving the house, many of us not only carry our child, but also toss a bulging diaper bag on our shoulder, putting stress on our neck, shoulder and back.
• Safer: Wear the diaper bag strap across your body, keeping your shoulders relaxed. Try your best to lighten your load; keep only those items in the diaper bag that you’ll actually need.
Feeding a Child – Whether you’re still spoon-feeding or simply helping to cut up food while your baby or toddler is in the high chair, pay attention to your posture.
• Risky: Leaning forward to reach your child’s mouth causes back strain.
• Safer: Sit as close to your child as possible. If necessary, place pillows behind your child to position your child closer to you. Resting your free arm on your thigh can also help support your spine.