Nursing Posture and its Role in Sympathetic Domininance
Motherhood is stressful, and getting used to life as a mom takes a major adjustment, no matter if it’s the first baby or the fifth. Between the family demands, work demands, financial concerns, endless to-do lists, and the influx of new hormones into the body, it’s all too easy to enter into a state of stress dominance. In this state, the fight-or-flight sympathetic nervous system of the body dominates for long periods of time and we begin to feel the effects on our emotional and physical health. This problem can extend well beyond the physical side of life, spilling over into our relationships, especially with those closest to us.
Stress is an undeniable part of modern life. But what if the unique stress cascade experienced by first-time moms is largely the result of one thing that most people overlook— the posture we take while nursing or bottle feeding our children?
When we assess the posture of most new moms today, whether they’re nursing or bottle feeding, what we find is a posture characteristically rounded forward with shoulders rolled in and the head in a downward position, gazing toward the baby, or a phone in hand. Among mothers who are pumping, we also see a similar, forward-flexed position. Even when new moms aren’t breastfeeding, the 10–20 pounds of added weight that they carry as they go about their days can lead to their whole body tilting forward.
“Day after day, I’m running around trying to take care of everyone else, leaving myself last on the list.” This is what a mom recently told me when she came to the chiropractor’s office looking for a remedy to her pain. Her explanation was certainly justified and true, but like many new mothers experiencing sympathetic dominance and the high tension, shallow breathing, and chronic “on edge” feeling that follows, she had overlooked her posture. When this mom got checked, she left her appointment with a whole new perspective, realizing for the first time how much of her own anxiety and tension could be the result of the physical posture she was using to take care of her child.
The Chiropractic Insight
When a person’s sympathetic nervous system activates, it’s well known that the body physically prepares by rounding the shoulders, moving the head forward, and tensing the backs of the legs in the fight-or-flight response. What’s less known is that when we round the shoulders and drop the head forward, even in a state of calm relaxation, the spine sends messages to the brain that mimic that fight-or-flight alert. In short, our physical posture can affect our nervous system, just the same as our nervous system affects physical posture in moments of real stress. The major difference between these two sources of signaling is the tendency toward chronic sympathetic activity when posture is the driving signal. Our posture is something we engage in all day long, and it’s important to know which postures feed the stress response and which alleviate it.
As it turns out, the posture many mothers use several times each day for months is just this kind of posture: shoulders rounded in, head and neck bent forward, and tension along the cervical spine. How much of a negative shift in temperament is caused by this posture? Only you can find out for sure—first, by consciously and regularly modifying your posture to see the difference it makes, and second, by seeing a chiropractor who can assess and correct for chronic, structural imbalances. The effects of nursing posture go deeper than neck and back pain—it reaches into the function of the nervous system itself. Posture is critical to our physical, physiological, and psychological well-being. It’s critical for all stages of life, especially the early stages of motherhood, when round-the-clock support for the baby is most pressing. Many things can be done at home to combat some of the effects of this type of structural shift, such as knowing and practicing better forms of body posture. Nonetheless, chiropractic care is an essential component because it directly addresses structural patterns that run below the level of conscious awareness. Additionally, chiropractic adjustments intrinsically down-regulate the sympathetic response and promote parasympathetic and vagal nerve activity.
While feeding or holding your child, sit or stand tall, with your chest open and shoulders down and back. There should be a sensation of the body, lengthening upward and expanding outward, with the torso resting on a balanced pelvis and secure lower back.
If your feet don’t reach the floor while you’re feeding your baby, use a footstool.
Stretch your chest and your hamstrings, and take time to stretch your other muscles and ligaments when you can.
Invest in an ergonomic breastfeeding pillow for support. This shouldn’t be a substitute for ideal posture, but an aid to it.
Schedule at least 10 minutes of quiet alone time every day to help reboot your nervous system to autonomic balance.
This article appeared in Pathways to Family Wellness magazine, Issue #61.
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