It's world breastfeeding week! I thought I would throw in my two cents on this topic. Why? Because surprisingly, physio has a LOT to say about nursing.
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, 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, it doesn't really impact your life in terms of the ability to function. I'm taking more about the alignment, structural and bio-mechanical changes that can really impact daily movement and function. This is REALLY important. Think about the cumulative effect of weeks, months, and years of poor positioning. I mean, how many hours do you log a month with breastfeeding? For me, I've been going strong for almost 3 years with a short six month break in-between babies. Shoot, I basically have an undergraduate degree in breastfeeding!
Is see it time and time again: women who start off with pretty good posture before baby end up looking (and 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. That can all start during your breastfeeding career. If you don't interrupt that progression, you may end up looking like a little old granny with a humped back living with a lot of pain.
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 awareness and find your neutral.
Gravity is a powerful force that you can't fight. It will always try to pull you down. We can either lose to that process (which equals pain) or we can overcome it and win. How? By orienting our bodies in the ideal position it was designed to best operate in. Think neutral spine, neutral rib-cage, neutral pelvis, neutral neck, neutral wrist....
Ok, so I know you can't sit or stand perfectly neutral all the time, but the more often we choose "neutral" the better it will be. The main thing needed is for your system to have a choice and be able to adapt to different positions. If it is constantly going into the same non-optimal position...then what your grandma said is true, you'll get stuck in that poor neuro-muscular pattern.
Try this: close your eyes and tune into your body. If you're really aware, you may start to feel twists, shifts, compressions, or added weight, in various parts of your body. If while nursing you feel you're shifted over or discomfort is starting to develop, then just try to shift back into neutral positioning and you'll immediately feel better. If you're not sure how to find that neutral, come in for a visit and we'll help you figure it out.
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 pull you down, causing your upper back to curve forward, your shoulder blades to move further apart, your neck to be pulled forward, and your chest to collapse in. Upper back muscles become overstretched and weak. Chest muscle become short and tight. You often end up slouching through your pelvis which has implications for the lower part of your body.
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 physio about some good 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. Although sitting is certainly an option (and often most practical), I will say that sitting tends to pull you into that hunch back position described in the section above. Instead of sitting all the time, you can try 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 toddler, you can sit with your little one straddling you and facing forward. If you're nursing a baby, you can also or try using a baby 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.
4) Use props and supports.
Nursing pillows, neck travel 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 or floppy baby. 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.
You can move WHILE breastfeeding by looking up from your baby from time to time. You can move your neck back into extension or slowly from side to side.
You should do a few stretches immediately AFTER nursing that will help open up your body from that curled and compressed position. Roll your shoulders forward and backwards. Bring your arms overhead and stretch your upper back and shoulders. Stretch out your pecs. Bend your trunk side to side. Then 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 stretches. Putting in the time after each nursing session will help to counteract that force of gravity and 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.
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 crappy posture. However, if you start to make movement a priority in your life, that will go a much longer way to offsetting the negative effects of static non-optimal postures. Think of one way to add more movement to your life and 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.
The Mama's Physio
We are a team of experienced physiotherapists with a passion for women's health and well being. We focus on pelvic health in the context of the whole body. We care for pregnant and post-partum mamas and women at all life stages from teens to the young at heart. We are mothers ourselves and we are women. We love what we do and we are here to serve you.