Try these exercises when carrying, cuddling, nursing, picking up, and holding your baby causes the muscles in your chest to shorten and pulls the shoulder blades apart.
When we talk about postpartum health and wellness, abdominal and pelvic floor health is often addressed. Yes, these are important areas to focus on, but the function of the neck and shoulders fundamentally changes when we have a baby, not necessarily because of pregnancy, but because of what is demanded of us after having a baby.
Babies require a lot of carrying around, looking down at, hunching over, and nursing or bottle feeding. All of these things can shape the postpartum upper back into a bit of a hunch, causing pain in the neck, in between the shoulder blades, and in the chest. Sometimes we even get tingling down the arms or into the hands. The neck and shoulders are so intimately connected that when something is off in one place, the other place usually goes off, too.
Exercises for Postpartum Neck and Shoulders
What’s happening is that because we are so often carrying, cuddling, nursing, hunching, and holding our babies, the muscles in the chest start to shorten. They pull the shoulder blades apart and the head down and shift the shoulders forward and inward in their sockets. We often feel like we need to stretch the upper back, but it’s often actually the chest muscles that need to be released. In addition, strengthening the muscles that help keep the shoulder blades on the back can make a big difference. Here are a few exercises that can help. You can do these alone or in order as a little sequence.
This is a very simple exercise that addresses many of the aches and pains in the body, and it can easily be done when playing on the floor with the baby. Simply come to hands and knees, arching your head and tailbone up to the sky on an inhale, and rounding the back like an angry cat on an exhale. For this exercise, focus on your shoulder blades. On the inhale, try to bring them together and slide them down your back. Imagine your chest trying to come forward ahead of your shoulders. On exhale, let them separate and stretch apart.
From hands and knees, walk your hands forward and come onto spider fingertips. Tuck your toes under. Let your bum go just behind your knees and melt your heart towards your thighs, resting your chin or forehead on the ground. There should be very little weight on your hands, and you should feel your chest and upper back releasing as you pull your heart back towards your thighs (as pictured).
Shoulder Core with a Strap
This is an excellent exercise for sore shoulders because it strengthens the small stabilizer muscles of the shoulder and helps them to sit in the most functional place for your body. You can do this one seated or standing. Hold a strap with your two hands facing you at about the level of your forehead, shoulder distance apart. Pull the strap apart with your hands while you hug the elbow underneath the wrists. Keep drawing the shoulders down away from your ears. As you inhale, lift the strap up, and as you exhale, bring the strap down. Repeat 6-10 times until you feel fatigued.
Shoulder Blade Cactus
This exercise feels really good and helps teach the shoulder blades where to go so that the back and shoulders feel supported. On your inhale, reach your arms up to the sky. On your exhale, bend the elbows, making a cactus shape with your arms. At the bottom of your exhale, imagine you are trying to touch your elbows around behind your back. Feel the way the bottom tips of the shoulder blades activate as they pull together and down, and notice that this releases the tops of the shoulders. Repeat 4-8 times with your breath.
Twist with Neck Stretch
Sit comfortably, ideally cross-legged on a low cushion. Turn your body to the right, bringing your right fingertips to the ground behind you, and your left hand across to your right knee. Sit up tall and draw your shoulder blades down your back. Tuck your chin in slightly and gently bring your right ear towards your right shoulder. Pull up on your knee with your left hand gently to increase the stretch. Stay for five breaths, then switch sides.
Shoulder Opener on a Wall
Stand beside a wall and extend your left arm out, placing your palm against the wall with the fingers pointing behind you. The arm should be straight out to your left. Draw the shoulder down and gently press your hand against the wall as you slowly, gently rotate your body to the right, away from the wall. You should feel a good stretch along your forearm, chest, and shoulder. Take 5 deep breaths and switch sides.
Shoulder Opener on a Couch, Chair, Stroller, or Crib
This is a great one to do whenever you have a chance. You can do this on almost any surface, but something that’s about belly level tends to work well. The sides of a crib, the handles of a stroller, or the back of a couch or chair will work. Simply place your hands down on the edge you’re working with, about shoulder distance apart. Slowly walk backwards away from the surface and all your chest to melt towards the floor. This pose looks a little like a downward dog, with your hips roughly in line with your hands. You can experiment with the distance between your hands to see what feels like the best stretch for you.
For more postpartum support, see Julie’s guided meditation for postpartum healing.