While a lot of advice is heaped upon new parents when a baby is born, not much information is given about back care. But given the number of times a baby or toddler needs to be lifted and held every day, there’s a lot of potential for parents to injure their backs.
According to a recent study by insurance company Million Dollar Woman, a mum can lift the equivalent of nearly one tonne every day when caring for her baby, factoring in the numerous times a baby needs to be picked up and put down for feeding, changing, nap times, night time settling and playtime.
And while a new baby might not be very heavy, an improper lifting and holding technique – as well as caring for an older toddler, or having a history of back problems and weak abdominal muscles – can quite literally make parenthood a pain in the neck and back.
A bad back can affect more than your physical health, too: a 2008 study published in the European Spine Journal showed that mothers who reported back pain were more likely to have symptoms of postnatal depression.
Physiotherapists in some maternity hospitals offer classes on safe lifting and carrying techniques, as well as exercises to strengthen and support back muscles. Arna Opperman, a physiotherapist and Pilates instructor from Miranda, NSW, encourages new mums to attend the classes.
Mothers who reported back pain were also more likely to have symptoms of postnatal depression.
“New mothers should seek advice from a physiotherapist while in hospital,” she says. “They’ll advise on early, safe and effective strengthening exercises to correct abdominal muscle separation, strengthen important muscle groups and reduce the risk of injury.”
Opperman also suggests that Pilates classes are a great strengthening program in the post-natal period. New mums who can’t make it to regular sessions can try in-home exercise programs, such as the Better Health Channel’s postnatal sample workout.
While an exercise program is an important part of preventing serious back problems, practicing correct lifting techniques is also a big part of the solution. Opperman advises mums to minimize any unnecessary lifting for a minimum of four weeks after the birth.
“After a caesarean, you should lift nothing heavier than your own baby for six weeks. After a vaginal birth, lifting should be minimized until any stitches have healed,” she says.
When lifting anything awkward, like a car seat or a pram, Opperman advises that “anything lifted should be done in front of your body, and should be held close to your body. When lifting, your knees should be bent, your back should be straight and your lower stomach muscles should be engaged.”
In a recent article in The Age, Dr Simon Floreani, president of the Chiropractors Association of Australia, emphasised the importance of properly lifting a child from birth. Back care can become a bigger issue for parents as their kids age, especially when the children start asking for piggyback or shoulder rides, or if you carry them on your hips.
To keep your back in good shape, WorkSafe Victoria offers solutions for common scenarios:
• When picking up your child from a cot, drop the sides of the cot down and reduce the distance between you and your child first.
• Use change tables that are height adjustable, changing your baby at your waist height.
• For older children, use highchairs that are height adjustable so they can seat themselves.
It's also important to take care when doing those everyday chores, such as:
• Picking up toys and other items on the floor – it’s best to minimise repeated bending at the waist, so ask your child to help you or squat down to pick things up.
• Sitting on the floor – it’s better to sit with your back to a wall or other furniture to give you support.
• Washing your kids’ hands – if they’re tall enough, ask them to stand on a (stable) foot stool instead of lifting them to the sink.
The Occupational Health Clinic of Ontario also recommends:
• When lifting a toddler, squat with your knees shoulder-width apart, push your bottom out to bring yourself close to your child, hold him under his shoulders, tighten your stomach muscles, then use your thigh muscles to raise yourself.
• When lifting infants, place one foot next to the child and lower yourself on your other knee. Slide the infant from the knee on the floor to mid-thigh, then lift her onto the opposite thigh. Holding your baby with both hands, keep your back straight, push your bottom out and use your thigh muscles to lift yourself up.