New moms can be vulnerable to spinal issues resulting from hormone changes, poor posture and a heavy new bundle to tote around. But with careful lifting techniques and back-strengthening exercises, postpartum back pain can be prevented and treated.

Lindsay Davey, a registered physiotherapist, is all too familiar with pregnancy-related back pain. But as the clinic director of Toronto Physiotherapy, she knew that taking steps prior to delivery would help her back after she had her baby, a time when hormones, breastfeeding positions, heavy car seats and awkward lifting can all wreak spinal havoc.

“I experienced more low back pain when I was in my second and third trimesters as the weight in the front of me continued to grow, and the hormones circulating meant my pelvis and low back were becoming more and more lax,” says Davey. “But I kept up at the gym right until the end and felt that this strengthening helped me a great deal in the postpartum period in terms of avoiding low back pain.”

Carrie Anne Badov, partner and editor-in-chief of EverythingMom, found acupressure (applying pressure to certain points on the body to relieve tension) and heating pads helped alleviate back soreness: “During my pregnancies I also tried yoga and tried to incorporate some of the stretches after birth to relieve any issues with my legs or back.”

Back pain common in new moms

Davey says new moms are barraged with new physical challenges after delivery at a time when their backs are most vulnerable due to the presence of a hormone called relaxin, which can cause lax muscles and pelvic instability. “Once the baby arrives, the demands on mom skyrocket in terms of adopting sometimes unusual positions or movement patterns in order to care for the infant,” she says.

Badov agrees. “As new mothers we don't take cues from our body that something's wrong, such as back pain, and just chalk it up to being a mom versus trying to address or alleviate the problem.”

The main culprits of postpartum back pain are:

  • Car seats that are heavy and carried at odd angles.
  • Strollers that have to be lifted and collapsed.
  • Lifting the baby out of a crib, which involves bending at the waist.
  • Breastfeeding in positions that don’t support the lower back.
  • Carrying the weight of a baby around for several hours a day.

Back pain usually shows up as a dull ache in the low back area, sharp pangs in the lower spine or where the pelvis meets the sacroiliac joints (where the spine and pelvis connect), says Davey. Sometimes women can develop sciatica or nerve pain that radiates down the leg.

How to prevent or alleviate postpartum back pain:

  • Carry car seats in front of you, elbows bent, rather than on your forearm on one side. This keeps the car seat closer to your body and reduces back strain.
  • Avoid twisting the spine. When removing a child from a car seat, enter the car and face the child while resting on one or both knees.
  • Support your back while breastfeeding by placing a pillow against the small of your back while raising your feet.
  • Strengthen muscles that support the low back, pelvis, and hip regions, as well as improving abdominal and pelvic floor muscles. “Doing things like squats or wall slides on the wall, sit-ups, plank-type exercises or lunges are all great ways to start to strengthen the larger muscle groups that also support the low back,” says Davey, adding that inner core and pelvic floor muscles should be engaged throughout. She recommends sets of 10 repeated three times.
  • Bend at the knees when you lift your baby, not at the waist. Davey also recommends squeezing both buttocks and abdominal muscles prior to lifting to protect the spine.
  • Adjust the height of stroller handles so that you’re not awkwardly bending forward.
  • Talk to your doctor if the pain fails to go away or gets worse.

More new-mom back-saving tips:

  1. Get the okay from your doctor at your six-week postpartum check-up before starting exercise.
  2. Physiotherapy can help build muscle strength and relieve symptoms.
  3. Massage therapy may help provide back pain relief.
  4. Join a postpartum exercise class such as yoga or aquafitness.

Need help getting started? Try our Bright Start tool.