Yoga for New Moms: Breastfeeding & Caregiving
Did you know that in a study of 500 first time moms followed for 3 months after birth, 92% of them reported issues and concerns with breastfeeding? The study concluded that all mothers need support after hospital discharge, and yet, most do not receive it in the US.
That isn’t all.
Common postpartum concerns include issues with back pain, shoulder pain, neurological symptoms, hip and pelvic pain, urine or fecal leakage, pain with attempted intercourse and other sexual impairments, psychoemotional and spiritual concerns concerning taking on a new identity, lack of social support, and lack of paid leave and help with infant care.
It is no surprise that we are in a state of global maternal crisis. I presented research with an international group of therapists I brought together in 2016 at the WCPT 2017 in Capetown, South Africa, and these were just some of the statistics we presented. What we found was that the struggle for moms is real, especially mothers of color who have a 4 times higher risk of death and disability. So the bottom line is, if you are a mom, you need support and you are not alone.
Whether you are a first time or fifth time mom, breastfeeding isn’t a walk in the park. It’s a big commitment, both physically and emotionally. In fact, sustaining a human life beyond just your own is an infinitely selfless act that requires giant sacrifice, love, and constant effort. So I’d like to gift this yoga practice to you as a mother, as a caregiver, as a champion and nurturer of the future of our planet.
Breastfeeding and caregiving each exact a giant physical tax on your body. I know, I’ve given birth to three babies who all breastfeed for at least a year each. That’s a lot of milk produced and calories burned (and a giant grocery bill to support it all), but it’s also a lot of time dedicated to being still in one position while baby eats.
The physical toll on your back, neck, and shoulders is demanding, and as a first time mother some 13 years ago, I was shocked at how it was so physically demanding.
As a physical therapist, I found myself thinking of ways I could counteract the constant forward bending and flexion that I found myself haphazardly doing to care for my son (trust me, you aren’t thinking about body mechanics in the middle of the night when you have a frustrated baby who is trying frantically to nurse, while you are half asleep and sleep deprived, and also hurting from the physical trauma of birth and the lack of time to rehab afterwards). So just a few weeks into motherhood, I designed a medical therapeutic yoga practice (the combination of healthcare and yoga) for myself.
Part therapeutic and part preventive, this practice helped me through all three of my sons, and continues to help many people I teach in my postpartum courses or see as patients.
Here is a short list of things you can expect from long-term infant and even toddler care, as many moms breastfeed longer, and even when you don’t, you are still hauling baby gear (and babies!), which exact a physical toll that must be balanced with oppositional movements and strength and mobility.
Some of the issues related to infant caregiving and breastfeeding include:
Upper Body & Neck
- Shoulder imbalance, deconditioning, impingement, &/or pain
- Numbness, tingling, or change in sensation in arms
- Jaw pain
- Vocal issues
- Fascial restriction
- Neck disc or other vertebral issues
- Difficulty with deep breathing and shortened overuse of accessory breathing muscles
Lower Body & Back
- Shortened abdominals
- Low back and pelvic floor deconditioning
- Pelvic or hip instability or pain
- Hamstring or sciatic nerve compression or shortening
- Shortened hip flexors
- Fascial restriction
- Bladder or bowel leakage or urinary frequency
I hope this yoga practice will help you gain strength, endurance, mobility, and ease aches and pains (and stress!) that result from prolonged caregiving, such as from holding baby, breastfeeding, using a baby carrier, pushing a stroller, and generally all things that make us have to bend and lean forward to care for our babies.
Breastfeeding and Caregiving Do’s and Don’ts
When I say “honor spinal curves,” I mean try to lift, hold, and feed your baby while not slumping or swaying the back. Sure, you could do slump or sway for a short time, but the human frame isn’t meant to sustain these postures since it requires muscular effort and stresses the spine. A neutral spine, think of a person standing effortlessly tall, is one where minimal effort is needed to maintain the posture. See these illustrations below – where this mom has found a neutral spine to care for baby.
Regardless, neutral spine isn’t always possible and sometimes, impossible. Think of the difficulty of breastfeeding, say in an airplane seat or in an unexpected location. When baby is hungry, baby must eat now. When that happens and even when you have ideal situations and posture, you need a restorative yoga practice. Gentle postures that help facilitate healthy, safe movement and that counteract all that baby care.
An Medical Therapeutic Yoga Practice for New Moms: Breastfeeding & Caregiving
The overview is first, and all the photographic illustrations follow. These postures are meant to counteract the daily demands of childcare and babycare, and are especially helpful for moms who are breastfeeding.
BEFORE YOU BEGIN
Please consult a physical therapist and/or your physician or midwife before completing this program. I highly recommend consulting a pelvic PT to help you through this program and/or to help decide which movements may be right for you. If you have a non relaxing, or painful pelvic floor or have pelvic pain or bladder or bowel leakage, absolutely consult a pelvic PT before starting this or any exercise program.
Learning these breath types can help you get started.
Sequence 1 – This sequence includes hand postures. Your posture may not look like mine, the point is to begin to introduce the movement without pain or discomfort. All postures should be pain free.
Sequence 2 – This sequence can also be done seated. Instead of a long hold, simply move through the range of motion as a flow. Take at least a 4-5 count inhale and 4-5 count exhale for each movement, spending 2-3 minutes on each one.
Sequence 3 – This sequence can be done from forearms (DDP and DFD) and includes some optional standing. Key: DDP (downward facing dog prep), DFD (downward facing dog). You can hold each pose for 3-5 breaths, moving slowly and mindfully in and out of each pose.
Sequence 4 – This final finishing sequence includes pigeon, which uses a blanket under the pelvis (not the legs). Reclined hero is an advanced pose but the video instructional is at www.medicaltherapeuticyoga.com. These poses can be held for longer (up to 5 minutes or more) except for tabletop, which is typically only a 3-5 breath cycle hold.
Here is a short sequence that you can do in addition to or separately from the practice above. It is called Moon Salutation, and can be done when you have low energy and need a pick me up. It is a mini-practice when you only have 5-10′ to spare.
If you want to learn more, practice with me online at www.medicaltherapeuticyoga.com
- Nommsen-Rivers et al October 2013. Journal of Pediatrics.http://www.healthfinder.gov/News/Article.aspx?id=680369&source=govdelivery&utm_medium=email&utm_source=govdelivery
- Garner et al., World Congress on Physical Therapy 2017. Global Maternal Health Crisis. Lecture. Capetown, South Africa.
- Garner, G. 2016. Medical Therapeutic Yoga. Handpsring Pub Ltd., Edinburgh, UK.
This and all blog posts related to yoga and/or physical therapy on www.gingergarner.com are not a substitute for medical advice and are not a prescription or program for individualized physical therapy. You must seek the advice of your health care provider and, only after a thorough physical examination and clearance, participate in any movement or exercise program.