Shoulder and neck pain in moms- from infants to toddlers

Posted on June 14, 2017

(Last Updated On: June 14, 2017)

Ah, the miracle of birth. Initially it’s all like, “Oh my god. My baby is amazing.”

It’s not long until you realize,

And then two to three weeks in you’ve learned you had it all wrong.

We know the staples:

  • sleep deprivation
  • trouble getting nursing started
  • poop on the walls

We’re told much of this before the demon angel arrives. But something not talked about beforehand, which hits many moms, is shoulder and neck pain.

I’ve worked with a decent amount of moms (in personal training) and have now seen my baby momma up close. We’ll discuss why the shoulder(s) and neck can start hurting, and ways to feel better.

The first month

If you take any lactation classes, which I would highly recommend (dads included), you’re likely to immediately hear “Don’t lean your shoulder forward.”

It’s common for moms to try and reach their boob into their baby’s mouth:

New moms inadvertently engage in the most familiar posture issue- rounded shoulders. Mom is constantly trying to hold her entire upper body up, in an awkward position. That doesn’t feel great on the upper body.

-> This is where dads come in handy. The mom might not even know they’re doing this. Dads can spot it and be an avoidance reminder.

So mom can start leaning back, realizing she needs to use her arms and pull baby to her, rather than pull her body to baby.

This to this:

Not this to this:

But once that’s avoided, mom is understandably very curious about baby. She’s constantly observing, making sure nursing is going ok, making sure baby can breathe…she’s always looking down:

No surprise here- the neck starts getting pissed off. It starts to feel achey and tight, but that’s because it’s constantly being stretched.

-> Just because it feels tight doesn’t mean it is

Again, dads can help. Besides spotting this and reminding mom to keep her head back, they can assure mom baby is fine. Their nose is able to breathe, they’re latched ok, and so on.

A head support may be desirable too. Not only so there is something to lean back against, but if your head isn’t touching the support, you know you’re leaning forward. It’s a nice feedback mechanism.

And of course, time helps. As mom gets more comfortable with feedings she doesn’t feel the need to look down as much.

Ergo Baby / Moby Wrap / Baby Carriers

New moms are not only carrying around another person, who is progressively getting heavier, but they’re carrying around a good deal more in their chest, from milk production.

That makes the breasts heavier, which pulls on the shoulders more, such as through bra straps. The boobs push into the bra more, which pulls on the straps more, which pulls on your shoulders more.

Your shoulders go from left to right:

A baby carrier only adds to this. We add more weight (baby), pulling on more straps (the carrier), pulling more downward on the shoulders.

Avoid one strap, or at least mix up the sides

Some carriers only sling over one shoulder:

This places all the weight of baby on that one side, often a recipe to tick that side off. You can mix up the sides, but not all moms are comfortable on both sides, and either way we still transition all the weight from one side to the other. Double straps are preferred.

Tighten the ergo baby shoulder straps

The shoulder straps are tightened through the high strap:

ergo baby carrying back view strap adjustments

My hunch is the Ergo baby’s back / hip / low strap is more utilized than the shoulder strap, simply because the shoulder strap is not easy to get to and not easy to adjust. Particularly once the carrier is already on. As dad, I often have to help do it to avoid any baby momma drama.

For the adjustment, first, tightening the straps will often feel better. This way the straps pull more on one another, rather than down on the shoulders.

Next, play with a lower placement:

You could think of this as carrying a backpack vs a fanny pack. The backpack goes on your shoulders, the fanny pack around your waist. What feels better on your shoulders and neck? The fanny pack.

It’s always worth trying different adjustments, but again a tighter strap tends to be better. Though tighten too much and you may find it harder to breathe. Not usually a concern unless you’re e.g. working out or hiking. (Baby might not be comfortable if it’s too tight either.)

Move the straps in

The closer the straps are to the neck, the less they pull down on the shoulders. This is why many women’s neck’s feel better in sport bra straps, where the straps are typically closer:

sports bra feeling better on neck

Which is not a bad thing to play with either- adjust the bras you’re wearing too.

The tightening of the upper back strap will also help here, but it’s no guarantee you avoid doing this:

Use your hands to hold the straps

Holding the straps in your hands rather than on your shoulders:

ergo baby holding straps to decrease neck pain

That can give the shoulders and neck relief. If you’re walking for an hour, doing this every ten minutes, for a couple minutes, can make it so the neck isn’t having to deal with the carrier for an hour straight. Instead it gets a regular break.


This is what most of us are thinking:

This is similar to our sling comments. We can change what side we hold the kid on, but most will feel more confident on one side. Plus, usually the side that’s free is the dominant hand, for activities like cooking or moving things around. If you’re right handed, it’s tough for many to cook with their left.

This position can be compounded by two other factors-

  • One arm is doing all the reaching
  • The other arm is constantly being held in one position

Back to the dominant hand- that arm tends to have to do everything besides hold the kid. The arm is always reaching for objects. Using cooking as an example, that arm may be doing twice the work it was. It’s not only stirring the pot, it’s grabbing ingredients and plates too. That’s a big jump in workload.

By the other arm being held in one position, we mean this:

The elbow is held away from the torso.

I’ve seen people who do this who end up stiffening the arm in this position. They hold the arm out so much like that, it tends to stay that way. Their resting posture might look something like this:

The technical details of why this can cause problems are too nitty gritty to get into here, but a layman’s way of thinking about this is if you went to do a workout, and one of the exercises was “Hold your arm out from your side about 12 inches. Now keep it there for hours.” You can imagine that won’t feel great over time.

Two exercises to help

When it comes to exercises, we want to think of them as doing the opposite of what we already do too much. For this moms discussion, we’re looking to do the opposite of:

Shoulders forward:

Shoulders down:

Hands / elbows out:

Here are two exercises which combat the above.

Notice how we:

  • Are raising the arms and shoulders overhead
    • Rather than have our shoulders be pulled down, we’re pushing them up
    • Wall Slides are a tad harder, because we have to resist gravity
  • Keeping the arms inside our shoulders
    • We’d want to avoid the elbows turning out during Wall Slides:

  • Extending the upper back
    • Rather than round the shoulders forward, we are making them more erect. In other words, we end up sticking the chest out in these exercises.
  • (We also round the lower back in the hip rocking. It’s common through pregnancy to arch the lower back more and more, due to the stomach pulling more and more forward. Just a little more bang for your buck by stretching the lower back as well as the upper body.)

These feel good to most everybody, and the nice thing is they can be done anywhere. All you need is a wall and a floor.

They’re hard to do too much of, but a good minimum is 12-15 reps, 3-5 sets, a few days per week.


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