As a new mom, you’re likely focused on recovering from childbirth. But you’re also spending endless hours hunched over feeding your baby. You’re carrying a heavy diaper bag and lifting your little one in and out of a crib. This eventually takes a toll on your back, neck, shoulders, hips, and overall posture. However, even if you’re waiting to be cleared for formal exercise, there’s still plenty that you can do to reduce tension, ease sore muscles, and improve alignment. Our experts explain why gentle postpartum stretching is so vital, and provide examples of safe stretches for new moms to help ease common aches and pains.
Why does your body get sore during the postpartum period?
“You’re constantly doing everything in a forward motion—breastfeeding, carrying the baby, lifting the baby, changing diapers—so your back will be in pain most of the time,” says Aaptiv Trainer Jaime McFaden. “You might also find you are sitting more than you ever have. You will probably be lacking sleep and feeling that as well.”
According to Helene Byrne, a pre- and postnatal health and fitness expert, muscle aches and pains throughout your upper back, lower back, and neck are all too common, primarily due to a combination of altered alignment, abdominal weakness, and ligament laxity. “Pregnancy causes the pelvis to tip. This alters spine alignment, which in turn causes specific muscle groups to shorten and tighten (and sometimes spasm painfully) while opposing muscle groups weaken,” she explains. “The best postpartum stretches, by far, are those that address this fundamental imbalance: hip flexors, lower back, chest, and neck.”
Don’t ignore tight muscles.
“The lower back and hips are the most common areas for aches and pains for new mothers,” says Brad Walker, director of education at StretchLab. “The extra weight of carrying a developing child places additional forces on the muscles that support good posture. These muscles can fatigue quickly, which places additional strain on the joints and supporting structures around the lower back and hips. It’s also common for the breasts of pregnant women to increase in size and weight, putting pressure on the upper back by pulling the chest and shoulders forward. Movement during this time becomes a little bit harder, which again leads to muscles shortening. This tightening of the muscles leads to pulling on the joints and other structural components of the body. Keeping your muscles loose and supple will help to take pressure off the joints and relieve some of the tension that tight muscles can cause.”
You’re also adjusting to a new lifestyle, says Aaptiv Trainer Candice Cunningham—you’re constantly holding the baby and sitting or sleeping in different positions. At the same time, your body is trying to recover from weak core muscles that became overstretched during pregnancy, as well as weakness in the pelvic floor.
What are some safe postpartum stretching exercises that new mothers can do easily at home?
For the first six to 12 weeks after baby, advises Cunningham, stick to gentle postpartum stretching—nothing too wide or drastic. She recommends side-to-side neck stretches, bending over to touch your toes, and activation exercises like belly or diaphragmatic breathing that will help your core come back together. Heather Tyler, a personal trainer and new mom, suggests walking as much as possible, followed by stretching your hamstrings and quads afterward.
Here are ten other simple postpartum stretching exercises suggested for new moms:
Thread the Needle
“You can do this one for upper body on all fours, with hands under shoulders and knees under hips,” says McFaden. “Reach one arm up to the sky and then bring it under the opposite side of the body and rest your shoulder on the floor so [that] you are getting a nice upper back stretch. Switch and repeat.”
Parallel Arm Chest Stretch
“This stretch helps to open up the chest and shoulders, and prevent the upper back from rounding forward,” says Walker. “Stand with your arm extended to the rear and parallel to the ground. Hold on to an immovable object, like a wall or pole. And then turn your shoulders and body away from your outstretched arm.”
Hip Flexor Standing Lunge
“Stand adjacent to a sturdy chair,” says Byrne. “Place your right hand on the chair back for balance. Place your right foot on the chair, making a 90-degree angle at the hips and knees. Lift your left arm straight up, and then shift your body weight until you begin to feel a stretch on the front of your hip socket. Keep your supporting knee straight. Breathe into the stretch for 30 seconds, then do the other side.”
“We hold, nurse or feed, and pick up the baby all day,” says Tyler. “Necks are easily compromised and often cause pain to radiate down the arm to the wrist. Stretch your neck to the right side. Hold for 30-60 seconds, then look down towards your armpit and hold 30-60 seconds. Then back to first position and hold 30-60 seconds. Repeat on your left side.”
Lying Knee to Chest Stretch
“This stretch helps to loosen up the lower back and take pressure off the lumbar spine,” says Walker. “Lie on your back and keep one leg flat on the ground. Use your hands to bring your other knee into your chest.”
Supine Lower Back Release
“Lie down on your back and bring both knees to your chest,” says Byrne. “Place your hands behind your knees. Pull your shoulder tips down towards the floor. Pull your knees closer to your chest to release your lower back. Breathe into the stretch for 30 seconds.”
Lying Knee Roll-Over Stretch
“Another great stretch to help loosen up the lower back and take pressure off the lumbar spine,” says Walker, “[is the lying knee roll-over stretch].” “While lying on your back, bend your knees and let them fall to one side. Keep your arms out to each side and let your back and hips rotate with your knees.”
Door Frame Chest Stretch
“You can stretch your chest in many ways, but one I love is using a door frame,” says McFaden. “Press your palms about chest level into the sides of a door frame, and then step forward so [that] your arms are behind your chest. This helps open your chest and takes tension off your shoulders and back.”
“This may sound odd, but strengthening your wrist and forearm will help as you juggle the baby in one arm and use the other to do . . . everything,” says Tyler. “Holding a light weight, support your forearm from wrist to elbow (and don’t move your forearm) as you bend the wrist holding the weight down and up ten times. Repeat on the other side. Try three sets with two to eight pounds.”
“Lie down on your back in the neutral position (small arch in the lower back) with your feet flat on the floor, heels away from your hips, arms resting at your sides,” says Byrne. “Rotate your arms so that your thumbs face the floor. Slowly glide your arms out to the side along the floor, until you feel a stretch on the front of your chest. Breathe into the stretch for 30 seconds.”
Kneeling Quad Stretch
“This stretch helps to open up the hips and pelvis and restore good posture,” says Walker. “Kneel on one foot and the other knee. If needed, hold on to something to keep your balance and then push your hips forward.”
Walker also encourages new moms to gradually move into the stretch position until you feel a deep tension of about seven on a scale of one to ten. If you feel any pain, stop. Aim to hold each stretch for 20-30 seconds while breathing deeply. Then take a ten to 15-second rest, and repeat two to four times.
Should any postpartum stretching exercises be avoided?
“Stretching is essential to help ease postpartum aches and pains,” notes Michelle Linane, a yoga teacher and new mom. “Yet, it’s important to be aware of one possible risk: overstretching. The body produces a hormone called relaxin, which makes joints and soft tissues stretchy and elastic to accommodate a growing fetus and prepare the body for childbirth. This can be a problem when it comes to stretching because the joints and soft tissues of a postpartum woman are already loose and can be stretched beyond safe limits. For some women, this is also why they experience aches and pains in their joints postpartum. It takes about five months for ligaments and soft tissues to return to normal and re-stabilize joints.”
Do not do postpartum stretching to relieve joint pain.
If you’re breastfeeding, then your body will continue to produce relaxin in small amounts until you’re done lactating, says Linane. That’s why she instructs women to be cautious and limit postpartum stretching only to 70 percent of their ability, instead of 100 percent. Byrne also warns against postpartum stretching to relieve joint pain. This can worsen the condition of already unstable joints or be related to another issue. For example, pubic bone or lower back pain might indicate pelvic instability. This should be addressed by a doctor and/or physical therapist. And, until you regain functional core strength, be mindful of deep side stretches, deep twists of the spine, and abdominal yoga stretches like upward facing dog or wheel that can cause or worsen diastasis recti.
“Gentle stretches can help keep your body mobile and not stiff,” says Cunningham. “You don’t want to overdo anything, but there are numerous benefits to stretching as a new mom. Most of all, it will ease your body of associated pain with postpartum physical stress and help you stay calm.”