6 Real Mom Back Pain Triggers (and Strategies for Feeling Better!)

If carrying your baby—in your belly or on your hip—has wrecked your spine, these smart solutions can ease the pain.

Mom with Back Pain Shutterstock

Research shows that engaging in tasks involving awkward positions (hello, toddler wrangling!) ups your risk of lower-back pain eightfold. Heed these helpful tips from Anna Ribaudo, a physical therapist at NYC’s Hospital for Special Surgery, for pain-free-mom maneuvers. 

Breastfeeding: Choose seating with back support, and position your baby with pillows so you don’t have to lean forward to nurse. (You can also do a few shoulder-blade squeezes before feeding your baby, which activates the muscles that help support your upper back.)

Lifting her from the crib: Keep your feet hip-width apart, and pull your child toward you. Then bend with your knees and pull in your abdominals as you lift her up to your chest. A sturdy stool or step may help too. 

Putting him in a high chair: Don’t shimmy him into the narrow space between the seat and the tray. Removing the tray first makes this thrice-daily movement much more graceful and back-friendly.

Lifting her off the floor: No bending over! Instead squat down, tighten your stomach muscles, hold onto your child, and straighten your legs as you lift her up.  

Buckling him into his car seat: Avoid reaching in from the street if you can. Instead sit down next to the car seat with your child in your lap, then rotate your entire torso to the side and put him in the seat.

Using a stroller: Whenever possible, use a squatting position to get your child in and out. Stand tall while pushing: Studies show that constant slouching throws off your spinal alignment, causing muscles and ligaments to strain in order to keep you balanced. 

Your Back in Brief

Take one look at a woman in her third trimester and it’s obvious why pregnancy and back pain go hand in hand, says Silvana Ribaudo, M.D., an obstetrician at NewYorkPresbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center. Both your belly and your breasts are bigger, which can cause your shoulders to hunch and your lower back to curve inward. Plus, during pregnancy the body makes a number of hormones that loosen joints and ligaments—leading to instability and more frequent injuries. Joint laxity can remain an issue for several months after your delivery, which is a big reason that back problems continue to plague many new moms. Other triggers: lugging car seats and diaper bags, carrying a baby on one hip, and leaning over the crib. (Alas, toddlers continue to chant “Mama, up” at least 37 times a day.)

The following common back conditions are especially prevalent in expectant and new moms.

Sprains and strains: A sprain is a ligament injury that’s typically caused by a fall or a sudden twist; a strain is an injury to a muscle or tendon that can result from prolonged repetitive movement or one errant lift that overstresses a muscle. In both cases, the pain stays in your back (without radiating to your limbs) but is intense enough to put you out of commission for days. Hence the phrase “throwing out your back.” 

Slipped disc: Known in the medical community as a herniated, bulging, or ruptured disc (yep, they are all basically the same thing), this happens when an awkward or sudden movement causes one of the gelatinous discs between your vertebrae to tear or become strained. As a result, the collagen inside it leaks into the spinal canal. “If the herniation occurs in the lower back, you may feel pain or numbness traveling into your buttocks, hips, or legs, which can get worse over time. If it’s in your neck, you may have similar symptoms radiating into your shoulders and arms. These can be exacerbated by turning your head,” says Peter G. Whang, M.D., associate professor of orthopaedics and rehabilitation at Yale School of Medicine. For some people, the symptoms mimic those of a simple back sprain or strain, or sciatica, in which case your doctor may suggest an MRI to get a definitive diagnosis.

Sciatica: Common in the third trimester of pregnancy, sciatica can occur if a slipped disc presses directly on the sciatic nerve or if the sciatic nerve gets pinched as a result of ligaments loosening and your center of gravity shifting. The discomfort can vary widely—from a mild ache to severe shooting pain—but in most cases it stays on one side of the body and radiates from your lower back to your butt to your legs.  

Feel-Better Strategies

No matter how you hurt your back, the first steps toward recovery are usually the same: See your doctor to make sure your injury isn’t severe. Then apply ice or heat (whichever one provides greater relief) where the pain feels deepest and, if needed, take acetaminophen or, if you’re not pregnant, ibuprofen. Rest as much as you can for a day or two, then slowly begin to engage in gentle exercise that’s been approved by your doctor, like walking or swimming, suggests Dr. Whang. Your doctor may also prescribe physical therapy such as traction; this involves pulling on the trunk or limbs to stretch the spine and temporarily relieve pressure.

Resist the urge to curl up in bed for more than a couple of days; doctors now know that prolonged bed rest delays healing and that movement following your injury will make you more comfortable. Treated with care, most spinal injuries will resolve within four to six weeks, without any invasive treatments.

Once you’re recovered, use these tactics to prevent further pain.

Stand up: Sitting compresses your discs and fatigues spinesupporting muscles. If you have a desk job, get up and walk every hour to keep your back limber. When you do sit, avoid crossing your legs, which can put tension on the sciatic nerve, says Dr. Whang.

Move mindfully: “Most people have a natural instinct to move in a way that uses the least amount of energy,” says David Hanscom, M.D., an orthopedic surgeon at Swedish Neuroscience Institute, in Seattle, and author of Back in Control: A Spine Surgeon’s Roadmap Out of Chronic Pain. Unfortunately, that’s often unhealthy for your back. Taking the time to do certain activities in a particular way is worth it.

Shore up your core: Once you’re postpartum, concentrate on strengthening your abdominal and back muscles. It will improve your posture and balance—making you less injury-prone. Pilates is a safe (and for some, life-changing) way to do so, but talk to your doctor before you get started just to be sure. Sleep on your side. When you’re pregnant, this is the best position for your baby and your back, says Laura Riley, M.D., director of obstetrics at Massachusetts General Hospital and a Parents advisor. For additional relief, prop a pillow between your knees.

Eat wisely: Maintaining a healthy weight (whether pregnant or not) goes a long way. Extra pounds around your middle can shift your center of gravity and significantly strain your back over time.

Shift your smartphone: When you’re looking at your phone, hold it in front of your eyes, not beneath them, and keep your shoulders back. A recent study found that for every 15 degrees you bend forward over your phone, you increase the strain on your neck by about 10 pounds, which means those texts from your mom aren’t just giving you headaches but backaches too