Lifting your baby. Carrying a car seat. Holding your toddler in your arms. They can wreak havoc on your back, shoulders, and knees—unless you do them correctly. Here’s how.
When I became a parent, nobody told me how hard it would be—especially on my wrists, elbows, back and neck. In a word—ow! All the lifting, bending and twisting I do without thinking countless times a day to get my 8-month-old and my 3-year-old in and out of strollers, cribs, car seats and on and off changing tables is taking a physical toll in the form of creaky knees, achy elbows and a rebellious back.
I’m far from alone. “I’m constantly treating moms who are suffering from repetitive-stress injuries (RSIs) that result from the wear and tear of being a parent,” says Peggy Brill, a New York City physical therapist and author of The Core Program (Bantam 2001). RSIs are degenerative disorders caused by chronically using poor posture to perform everyday tasks, such as carrying your baby in an infant car seat on your forearm like a handbag. Such poor body mechanics place too much force on ligaments, muscles, joints, tendons and spinal discs and can be harmful if you do them often. Women are especially prone to RSIs because, unlike men, they naturally lack upper-body strength.
Luckily, having good posture and learning how to lift and carry your child properly can reduce your risk of injury. With that in mind, here are five body-breaking moves and how to fix them.
Lugging an Infant Car Seat
Don’t: Lean to the side and carry it on your forearm like a purse.
“This position stresses your back, shoulder, and—especially—that arm,” says Mary Ellen Modica, a physical therapist at Schwab STEPS Rehabilitation Clinics in Chicago. “After my youngest child was born, I developed pain in my shoulders that wouldn’t go away,” says Sandy Cummings, a mother of three. “The doctor diagnosed it as bursitis.” The culprit: lugging around a 15-pound car seat with a baby inside.
“Carrying an infant car seat on your arm is equivalent to walking around with three or four full paint cans in one hand, something most people wouldn’t do, but yet, they’ll carry a car seat that way,” says Modica.
Do: Put both hands on the handle, bend your elbows, and carry the car seat in front of you. The less distance between your torso and what you’re carrying, the better for your back. Using both hands also helps distribute the weight evenly.
Lifting Your Baby From the Crib
Don’t: Lock your knees or hold your baby at arms’ length as you pick him up. “This puts extreme pressure on your spinal discs,” says Nicholas Warren, Sc.D., ergonomics coordinator at the University of Connecticut Health Center in Farmington.
Do: Plant your feet shoulder-width apart, lower the crib railing, and bend your knees. Then bring your baby as close to your body as possible before lifting him up.
Carrying a Toddler
Don’t: Balance your child on one hip. This can strain your back and the ligaments on that side of the body. In addition, as your arm presses against your child, your muscles continually contract, reducing blood flow. Over time, this can lead to trauma of the tissues in your arm and shoulder.
Do: Hold her in front of you with her legs wrapped around your waist. Keeping your child centered will help you stand upright—your spine’s natural position. Another option: Use a stroller (or encourage your child to walk) as often as possible.
Putting Your Child on Your Lap
Don’t: Lean forward while you remain seated. Why?
“As you lift, the pressure on your spinal discs multiples to three to ten times the weight of your child,” Modica says. “If you’re tall, for example, lifting a 20-pound toddler from the floor could put as much as 200 pounds of pressure on your back!”
Do: Get down on one knee with the other foot planted in front of you, and hold her as you move back into your seat. Or you’re your child climb into your lap.
Lifting Your Toddler from a Car Seat
Don’t: do the twisted car seat lift.
Worst-case scenario: With both your feet on the ground, you twist and lean into the car seat with your arms extended, your toddler at the end of them. Lifting your toddler that way can do a number on your knees, lower back, neck, shoulder, elbows and wrists.
Do: “Put one leg into the car and face the car seat as you’re putting your child in it,” says Traci O’Hara, a physical therapist at Englewood Hospital and Medical Center in Bergen County, New Jersey. You’ll take pressure off your back. If your car seat is in the middle of the back seat, climb in and face the car seat as you lift your child into it. Of course, positioning yourself properly can take a few extra seconds you don’t always have with a feisty toddler in tow.
Still, “it doesn’t have to be perfect all the time,” says Dalton. “But the more often you lift correctly, the better you’re able to tolerate it when you don’t,” she says.
Did you know that strengthening your abdominal, back, pelvic, and hip muscles can reduce your risk of developing a repetitive-stress injury? Physical therapist Peggy Brill recommends practicing this simple exercise at least three times a week.
Lie on your back with your arms straight up toward the ceiling. Keeping your back flat against the floor, lift your legs over your pelvis and bend your knees at a 90-degree angle.
In one slow, smooth motion, bring your left knee toward your chest as you extend your right leg. Keep alternating legs as you incorporate your arms: When your left leg moves toward your chest, extend your left arm over your head, and vice versa. Repeat up to a count of 60.
Sandra Gordon is a freelance journalist and author.