There’s lots of talk about breast and nipple pain for new mums, and with cracked nipples, thrush and mastitis – all that chatter is well deserved! What doesn’t tend to get quite so much airtime is the back and neck pain that commonly go hand in hand with breast feeding. Because there are common musculoskeletal causes for both breast and back pain in feeding mums, we’ll endeavour to cover off both.
Finding the cause of breast and nipple pain can be tricky and there may be more than one cause. Breast and nipple pain during lactation is most commonly related to the actual breastfeeding, for example to poor attachment, a blocked duct, mastitis or nipple infections.
However, pain in breastfeeding mothers can also be musculoskeletal in origin – that is, pain can be related to the bones, muscles and joints etc. When caring for an infant you’ll be doing a variety of new tasks and likely you’ll be doing these on high rotation – bending, lifting, carrying…and that may increase the risk of developing musculoskeletal pain.
Some common contributors to musculoskeletal pain:
- poor posture while feeding
- holding the one position for long periods
- fatigue and/or stress
- any preexisting pain or injury
Breast pain can be referred pain from:
- the spine – due to a bulging disc in the upper or middle back, an irritated nerve or a problem with the joints between the vertebrae
- tight or tender spots in the chest and shoulder muscles
- the ribs and rib cartilages can become inflamed where they meet the breastbone or sternum
- the nerves that arise from the neck and back and travel through the shoulder complex to supply the breast area
Regardless of the specific cause of breast pain, early assessment and intervention will increase the likelihood of successful feeding so don’t sit on it. First port of call should be your GP or midwife, and if they’re happy it’s not a primary breast or feeding problem, you can then move on to your Osteopath or Physiotherapist.
An osteopath, or other physical therapist, can help confirm that your breast pain is musculoskeletal in origin and, work out what treatment may be appropriate.
Back Pain while Breastfeeding
There are many things that can contribute to back pain while breastfeeding. In the list below you’ll note that they’re mostly the same factors that contributed to musculoskeletal breast pain in the list above.
- Extra pregnancy weight that you may still be carrying, especially if your breasts have become quite heavy for your frame.
- The most common reason for back pain may be poor feeding posture and sustained positions.
- Unaccustomed lifting can trigger back pain and carrying a baby about all day can definitely be a trigger.
- Any previous pain in the back may present with a worsening of pain when breastfeeding.
Tips to Relieve Back Pain while Nursing
Here are some handy tips to help you relieve your back pain while nursing:
1. Take note of your nursing position: Most new moms can’t resist looking down at their newborn while feeding but holding this position for a prolonged period can be a real pain in the neck – reclining during feeding can allow you a more comfortable neck position while still meeting your baby’s gaze.
Sitting hunched over your newborn can strain muscles in the neck and upper back, creating a sense of burning or weakness at the base of the neck or between the shoulder blades – reclining and allowing your bub to lay on your chest to feed can also help this.
Lying on your side to feed can off-load your neck and shoulders and it allows you to make eye contact without looking down so much. Alternating between positions can also be a great strategy, it allows your various muscle groups to recover and it also helps to promote less fussy feeding habits.
2. Use pillows for support: Propping bub up on a feeding pillow can also help support their weight so you aren’t constantly using your own muscular strength to hold them while feeding. By doing this, you can bring your baby closer to the breast which puts less strain on your back, neck and shoulders.
3. Find the best seat in the house: If you’re feeding sitting up, try to find somewhere you can sit with a slight recline, that has good support. You don’t want to be sinking into a slouchy couch for an extended period, especially if you have a ‘cluster feeder’ who likes to feed back to back over a number of hours.
4. Get yourself a massage: Treating yourself to a relaxing massage is a great way to loosen those tight muscles and get things moving, but it’s also a great way to bring down the stress hormones and promote a sense of calm.
5. Get moving: Walking is an effective way of creating some freedom of movement and reconditioning your back and pelvic muscles after labour. Not only will it help your back, but it will also improve your mood and, as an added bonus, bub is likely to drift off to sleep and give a few quiet moments to admire them lovingly!
6. Rest Whenever your Baby Sleeps: Getting enough rest while caring for a newborn can be an impossible task… and rest is so important for your body to recover from birth. Try to sleep or at least rest when bub does. Let the washing pile up – you are far more important.
7. Get back into exercise: Most women are mostly recovered by around eight weeks after the birth of their baby. Gentle pelvic floor and abdominal exercise and walking can generally start as soon as you feel comfortable. More vigorous exercise should probably wait until you get the go ahead from you GP at your eight week check-up.
An Accredited Exercise Physiologist, experienced in working with post-natal mums can personalise an exercise routine to help you to strengthen your muscles and achieve your goals.
8. Make friends with your heat pack: A warm heat pack is a simple, cost effective way of reducing back pain while breastfeeding. It has no aside effects and poses no real risk to your baby (just keep it warm, not hot!), so make friends with your heat pack!
9. Be mindful and manage your stress: The first year of parenthood is a challenge… even if everything goes right it’s tough! Added stressors can push us beyond our ability to cope well so it’s important to be mindful about any stressors we add to the mix. If you feel stressed or anxious, try to find time to do things that reduce your stress levels such- taking a warm bath, listen to some music, read a book, get some sleep or a good massage.
10. Don’t be afraid to ask for help: They say it takes a village – and for good reason. Motherhood is exhausting and it’s completely normal to feel you can’t manage everything on your own. Ask for help, whenever you need. There’s no shame in it.
Easy stretches you can do at home to relieve breastfeeding related pain
Stretches are very good for relieving back pain and here are some easy stretches that you may try to battle breastfeeding related back pain: