‘Pain is a signal our bodies give us’


Many harried parents ignore the onset of back pain until it becomes unbearable and near-crippling. Sarah Niman explains why maintaining spinal strength is crucial, and how to do it while parenting.

Natalie Castonguay has five kids under age six, so when back pain started preventing her from parenting, she knew she needed outside help.

“The severity and intensity seemed unique,” said the Stittsville mother, 33.

Neck tension, muscle spasms, chronic lower back pain and headaches only got worse with each baby-carry, car seat-hoist or feeding session. Other mothers she spoke with sympathized and encouraged her to seek treatment beyond Tylenol and heat pads.

Like Castonguay, many parents dismiss their pain, figuring things will sort themselves out. But like a cracked foundation, back pain can grow from a nagging problem to a full-scale crisis.

Shelagh Haynes, a massage therapist and physiotherapist, said patients have limped into her office in tears, suffering back pain so severe it prevents them from parenting.

“They put the child first, and that’s only natural,” she said. “I see people at the point where they can’t lift their child, so coming in before it gets to that point is ideal.”

Time comes at a premium with new babies, said Dr. Kelly Norman-Lamontaigne, a chiropractor at Back in Balance Chiropractic. Many new parents find it difficult just to leave the house, so they suffer through pain, instead of heeding early warning signs.

“Pain is a signal our bodies give us, and picking up on it early is key,” she said.

Muscle strain, lower back pain, neck tension, spinal disc injuries and repetitive stress injuries are common, but not normal, said Norman-Lamontaigne, a mother of two.

The big issue, she said, is making back health a priority for all parents.

While there are heightened risks associated with the hormonal changes of pregnancy and birth, fathers and adoptive parents are also in danger of muscle strains and injuries due to improper lifting and holding.

Parents are required to hunch over cribs, hoist babies into high chairs and hold them on their hips, sore backs or not.

“Use the proper lifting techniques we are taught in the workplace,” said Norman-Lamontaigne. “Bend at the knees and use your legs to do the lifting.”

She also recommends baby-wearing with a properly fitted carrier, lying back when nursing or bottle-feeding and using pillows to support arms when seated and holding baby.

Haynes advises parents to practise standing properly to avoid repeat stress injury. Line up ribs over hips, pelvis tucked in. Memorize the feeling, she said, and commit to standing this way from now on.

She also suggests new mothers relearn how to breathe.

“You have room now, but your motor systems are stuck in your upper chest, which can tighten back and chest muscles,” she said. A good start, she said, is to lie down, inhale and exhale deeply, and let muscles practise expanding fully.

Haynes also cautions mothers against jumping right back into high-intensity workouts, saying impatience can cause major problems down the road.

“Your body is new, alignment is different,” she said. “Take the time to retrain your postural cues.”

Professional treatments, like the eight-week postpartum health series Haynes offers, are often covered under extended health benefits.

Castonguay said a regimen of chiropractic care, acupuncture, massage, medication and physiotherapy complement her daily exercises and posture awareness.

While there are many options available across the city, parents can also keep back pain at bay with home exercises.

Straighten Up Canada is a free app from the Canadian Chiropractic Association that comes with a three-minute stretching routine to help parents strengthen posture and combat back and neck strains.

Castonguay said her initial treatments have helped her get through severe pain. With five little people looking to her for comforting hugs, maintaining her spinal strength has become a lifelong practice.