When I was a new mom, I grimaced while I was with a friend, rubbing my lower back with the hand that wasn't cradling my baby. My friend, who has two older kids, smiled knowingly and said, "I hate to break it to you, but early parenthood is a five-year backache."
For many moms, my friend's comment is all too true. When our kids are small, we carry them for hours each day, often on one hip more than the other. We also carry lots of other stuff, with clumsy diaper bags and heavy groceries high on the list. Then there are the movements of early motherhood -- bending over to pick up the baby, twisting as new crawlers and walkers skitter in unpredictable directions, and leaning at odd angles as we hoist our little ones into their car seats.
Luckily for me -- and, I hope, for you -- I started work on a book called Yoga for a Healthy Lower Back not long after I had that despairing reaction to my friend's comment. "Never lose hope," Liz Owen, my co-author and a yoga teacher with more than 20 years of experience, told me. "Your body can change, and it will, even if you have just 10 or 15 minutes a day to help your body feel better."
The backache so many moms experience may actually be a hip problem. If your hips are weak, tight, or shifted out of alignment from the physical demands of motherhood, your lower back is all the more vulnerable to pain and injury.
So. How are your hips? Try these three self-assessment tests to find out. Once you know whether your hips are in correct alignment (congratulations!), or if one hip bone is higher than or rotated in front of the other (don't panic!), you'll have taken the first step toward relieving and preventing lower back pain in your body.
Your anterior superior iliac spine (ASIS) is the medical name for the prominent knobby points at the tops of your front hip bones. Here's how to find your ASIS:
When you find your ASIS points, steady your fingers along them and stand up. Look in the mirror. Are your fingers -- and therefore your hip bones -- even? Is one hip higher than the other? Look down at your fingers. Is one hand closer to the mirror than the other, indicating that your hips are rotated forward or back?
Now let's look at the back of your hips, at your posterior superior iliac spine (PSIS). If you can position two mirrors to allow a clear view of your lower back, you can do this assessment yourself. Otherwise, ask your partner or a friend to help. First, find your PSIS points:
Again, a look in the mirror -- or ask your friend -- to see whether one hip bone is forward or back, higher or lower as compared to the other.
The yoga therapeutics expert Doug Keller developed an assessment tool dubbed the "race car test" because it will tell you whether your hips move in harmony with each other, or whether one "wins the race" when you bend forward. You'll need a friend or partner to do this test.
Now that you know the story of your hips, try some simple practices to help bring them into balance -- and kick pain to the curb. Owen recommends being mindful of how you carry your baby and your diaper bag, and trying to change sides at least every half an hour to distribute the burden on your hips equally. She also advises, "When in doubt, bend your knees to pick up and put down Baby, especially when your lower back feels weary or sore. Hug Baby as close to your chest as possible before standing up, keeping her weight closer to your own center of gravity."
Yoga poses can also help bring your hips into balance and strengthen the area to help them stay aligned.
Here's a terrific pose that you can do while your baby giggles up at you from the floor:
Start on your hands and knees, with your wrists under your shoulders and your knees under your hips. Arch your back into Cow pose, lifting your sit bones, collarbones, and head toward the ceiling while you drop your lower back and navel down toward the floor. Exhale, take your hips over to the right, and trace a clockwise circle until you land at the six o'clock position. As you move, begin to tuck your tailbone under, dropping your head and inhaling into Cat pose. Continue your circle back to your starting position, returning your back to Cow pose by the time you're back at twelve o'clock. Let your breathing guide you between Cow and Cat poses as you continue to circle, first to the right, then to the left. You may feel a satisfying "pop" in your hip joints as they release and open. Visualize balance between your two sides, and let the synchronized movement of the pose remind your hips of what they can feel like when they're working in harmony. And if you're practicing with your baby, don't forget to say "peekaboo!" at the end of each circle!
Practice Big Hip Circles five to 10 times in each direction, two to three times throughout the day, or as frequently as is comfortable for you.
After you do the pose, or any hip-balancing exercise, try the self-assessments again to see if your alignment has changed. "After a week or so, you should see that your hips have become 'intelligent,'"Owen says. "They are learning to bring themselves into balance."
Holly Lebowitz Rossi writes the Parents News Now blog for Parents.com. She is also the co-author, with Liz Owen, of Yoga for a Healthy Lower Back: A Practical Guide to Developing Strength and Relieving Pain.