A Tension-Relieving Upper-Body Sequence for New Parents

One of the hardest things I had to navigate as a new parent was balancing my physical recovery after giving birth with learning how to care for a newborn. My body needed time to rest and heal, but there is no downtime once a baby arrives! So it really threw a wrench into the works when I started to experience shoulder pain on top of everything else. 

My husband was not exempt from shoulder issues either. He may have avoided the discomfort of having to carry a baby on the inside, but it turns out carrying a baby on the outside can be equally hard on the body.

For starters, we often use our non-dominant (and therefore, weaker) arm to support our babies, who are awkwardly slung over a shoulder or hiked up on a hip. And babies are not stuffed animals! They squirm and fidget, and newborns require added neck support, which makes for some creative forearm and hand work. When using both arms in a cradle hold, the shoulders tend to round, which stresses the fronts of the shoulders. This was where I felt the most pain.

And all the new baby gear presents its own set of challenges! Even the most physically aware individuals struggle with getting car seats in and out, and if you live in a walk-up, you are lugging paraphernalia up and down the stairs numerous times a day. This was the main culprit for my husband’s upper back and shoulder tightness. 

Did I mention the lack of sleep? Lack of sleep makes you less aware of how you are moving, meaning that your baby-holding posture might be less than optimal because you’re tired. Finally, people who breastfeed still have relaxin in their system. Levels of this hormone are at their highest during pregnancy and birth and remain high while breastfeeding. Relaxin loosens the connective tissue in the body, including ligaments and tendons, which can make your body more prone to injury. 

Understanding the Movements That Cause Discomfort

The physical discomforts and worse that new parents may face are often the result of repetitive movements, which are hard on the body and can cause overuse injuries. Let’s take a look at which movements we tend to overdo as new parents. 

The four joint movements we will focus on are elevation, protraction, internal rotation, and adduction. Elevation is when you shrug your shoulders up to your ears; protraction is when your shoulders round forward and your shoulder blades broaden across your back. I’ll get to internal rotation and adduction in a minute.

New parents tend to “over-elevate” their shoulders when carrying heavy items, like when they lift the car seat into the car. This can lead to tight trapezius muscles and cause tension and strain in the neck and upper back. New parents also tend to “over-protract” their shoulders from frequently scooping their baby out of the crib and from pushing a stroller. Holding a baby in your arms not only rounds the upper back, but the arm bones tend to internally rotate, which then leads to more rounding of the upper back, creating a vicious circle. 

Adduction is when the arms come toward the midline. Adduction gets overworked with movements like hugging your baby to support them and moving that gear in and out of the car. As you can see, getting a heavy car seat in and out of the middle seat presents numerous mechanical challenges!

Unfortunately, all of these movements are not only common for the new parent, but necessary. Plus, we love holding our little ones close! What can we do?

Here are some simple shoulder exercises and stretches to help us hold our bodies, and therefore our babies, more efficiently.

You’ll need a wall, a yoga block, and a blanket (or towel) for this practice.

External-Rotation Stretch at the Wall 

Props: wall

It is very comforting for us (and our babes) to pull our little ones in tight. In many ways, how we hold our body in the early days reflects what’s happening in our life. We pull everything in close to care for this new being. Unfortunately, what may feel cozy in the moment can be hard on the body when done day after day after day. This stretch is a counterpose to all the pulling in close.

Stand a little closer than arm’s distance from the wall with the wall to your right. Reach your right arm out to the side and externally rotate so that your palm faces the ceiling. Then, without changing the rotation of your arm, place your palm flush against the wall, bending your wrist (your fingers will point down). You may need to move closer to the wall. 

Your left arm can be by your side or, to intensify the stretch, reach it over your head and place your left hand on the right side of your head to gently pull it toward your left shoulder, keeping your face pointed forward. This is a great stretch for the inner upper arm and side of the neck.

Hold for 10 to 20 breaths, then switch sides.

Protraction/Retraction Exercise at the Wall 

Props: wall, blocks

As mentioned above, we spend a lot of time as new parents in a hunched position. If we are not conscious, our upper back rounds forward with the reach of our arms, leading to our chest collapsing and our upper back getting tired. 

This exercise is helpful for creating awareness in how we move. Using the wall gives feedback and helps us to learn how to correct when we find ourselves in an overly rounded position. 

Grab your block and stand with your back flush against a wall, heels against the baseboard. Take the block between your palms on its widest setting and reach your arms forward to chest height. Keep your neck long and gaze forward. While keeping your arms straight, on an inhale squeeze your shoulder blades together, drawing the block closer to you (retraction). 

Next, keeping your back on the wall and your arms straight, on an exhale reach the block toward the center of the room, allowing your shoulder blades to spread and upper back to round (protraction).

Repeat the entire retraction-protraction exercise 10 times.

Now try to find a happy medium between protraction and retraction. Your upper back and chest should feel equally broad. 

Hold for 10 to 20 breaths and release.

The next time you are cradling your babe and find your shoulders rounding, remember the feeling of the wall literally having your back and draw your shoulder blades together.

Cat/Cow Push-ups

Now that we better understand the movement of the shoulder blades, let’s take this last exercise into a weight-bearing position. These cat/cow push-ups will help strengthen weak and tightened protractors. Unlike traditional cat/cow, in which we move the entire spine and pelvis, we are going to try to focus on movement just in the upper back. 

Come to hands and knees in tabletop. Align your wrists under your shoulders (or slightly forward of them if that feels better for your wrists) and your knees under your hips. On an inhale, exaggerate squeezing your shoulders blades together. On an exhale, press your palms strongly into the floor and round your upper back, spreading your shoulder blades apart. Try to maintain a relatively neutral neck, which will help you isolate the movement more in your upper back.

Repeat on the breath for a total of 10 rounds.

Chest Opener With Bent Elbows

Props: block

This pose may be the perfect antidote to the new parent lifestyle, and the best part is that it can be done anywhere and anytime—that is, as long as both hands are free (rare, indeed). Even a few breaths a day in this pose can be helpful! The bent elbow version helps to stretch the long head of the bicep. (This muscle gets overworked from all the bent-arm positions, but the top portion of it is particularly vulnerable to injury as it also gets overstretched with shoulder protraction.)

Begin in virasana (hero pose). Lift your seat and place the block on its lowest setting between your ankles. Try to keep your inner knees together, but if you can’t sit comfortably that way, lift the block to the middle setting or add a second block. 

You can also do the chest stretch standing while doing other activities to maximize your limited free time. On an inhale, open your arms wide, and on an exhale interlace your fingers behind your back. If you are unable to do so, use a belt or strap to connect your hands. Pull the front of your shoulders back, widening across your collarbones. Keep your gaze straight ahead and the back of your neck long. Bend your elbows to access the top of the bicep.

Hold the shape for 15 breaths. Switch the clasp of your hands so that the opposite thumb is on top and repeat.

Cactus Exercise on a Blanket

Props: blanket or towel

You may not get much time for a full yoga practice in the early days of your newborn’s life, so do make the most of the poses you get to do. If you can do only one of these postures, this would be it, because it also has an element of rest, which is in short supply for every new parent.

You do not need to put away the blanket (or towel) when you’re finished. You can leave it there ready to go for whenever you can sneak away again to repeat the last part of this pose, where you simply rest. Your little one won’t notice if the house is pristine, but will feel the difference when their parent breathes a lot easier and feels good in their body.

Roll a blanket (or towel) up lengthwise so that it is a long, skinny roll. Place it horizontally near the top of your mat and lie down so that it is directly under the bottom tips of your shoulder blades. Your uppermost back should be on the floor above the blanket. If not, slide back a few inches. Either have your legs straight, or, if your low back is tender, bend your knees and put your feet on the floor. 

Make a T with your arms at shoulder height, then bend your elbows to 90 degrees, externally rotating your upper arms, so that the back of your hands touch the floor. Rest here and breathe for a moment. Now, using the blanket as feedback, slide your shoulder blades toward your ears (elevation) and away from the blanket. This is generally not pleasant, so no need to stay too long—you are just preparing for the next movement. 

Next, slide your shoulder blades down your back, toward the blanket roll, and begin to press the back of your hands into the floor. Next, lift your elbows up toward the sky. They may not lift much or at all. The intention here is to use external rotation of the upper arms and the depression of the shoulder blades (drawing the blades down the back toward the waist) to open the chest. Keep your ribs softening toward the floor to help isolate the movement in the upper back. 

Hold for 10 breaths. Lower your elbows, rest for a few breaths, and repeat. Once you have done three rounds, rest in the “cactus” position and take a few deep breaths. 

Don’t Wait to Take Care of Yourself

Many new parents avoid taking care of their bodies until it is too late, because all of their focus is on taking care of their little one. But this is the prime time to take care of yourself as you are learning how to balance both self-care and childcare. Because, let’s face it, like the responsibilities we are shouldering (pun intended), those babies are only going to get bigger!

About the teacher

Hi, everyone! I’m Sarah Ezrin. I’m an author and yoga teacher trainer based out of the San Francisco... Read more

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