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How to Carry a Baby Without Throwing Your Back Out

There's a right way and wrong way to carry a baby. How do we know? Look to the indigenous culture where "back-pain" is a foreign concept.

If you have killer back pain and are wondering what the hell happened, don’t overlook the damage your little bundle of joy can inflict. Carrying a kid around all day — ergonomic baby carrier or not — is hell on pretty much everything between your neck and your ass. Yet there are still indigenous cultures where people carry baskets of food on their heads with kids hanging off their backs, and the concept of “back pain” is literally foreign to them. So what are you doing wrong? First things first, you need to figure out how to carry a baby correctly.

Esther Gokhale has you covered. She’s spent 20 years studying indigenous populations in Burkina Faso, India, Brazil, and elsewhere. It turns out, there are a few specific ways you should carry a kid, as well as some practical ways to maintain your back muscles and spine so you actually get stronger as the kid gets older (and heavier). Because if your ancestors could haul fresh kills for miles without throwing out their backs, you should be able to carry your kid for a half hour without having to call a chiropractor.

How to Carry a Baby When They’re Younger Than 6 Months

The trick to carrying a young baby is to hold your child in a way that serves the both of you. This means keeping them as close to your spine or midline as possible and using your biggest muscles. For that reason, you should hold them at your side, with their legs hugging your back and front. Use your bicep rather than your hand, wrist, or forearm to bear the weight, and face your palm up.

Here’s why carrying your baby this way works better than whatever you’ve been doing so far: It keeps your shoulders open and avoids tension in a bundle of nerves in your neck known as the brachial plexus. This, in turn, lets you breathe regularly, which means more oxygen is moving through your system and keeping your muscles from tiring faster. Keeping the palm of your hand face up improves your circulation as well. This method gets bonus points for keeping your kid’s spine properly aligned.

“There’s a logic to the traditional methods of carrying kids,” Gokhale says. “Helping their posture helps reduce the load on your system. I’m always looking for these dual benefits.”

How to Carry a Baby When They’re Older Than 6 Months

There are two reasons the Bhil people of Central India don’t cruise around with their kids in Baby Bjorns. First, they overload your shoulders and pull them out of a healthy posture while preventing your kid from snuggling against your body. Second, Baby Bjorn has no distribution in Rajasthan. Once their kids are big enough for it, the Bhil people haul their children on their backs.

Gokhale is a big believer in traditional African carrying cloths because they’re a quick and comfortable way to wrap your kid onto your back while minimizing back pain. “That’s as close to your spine as you can get,” she points out. You can do the same thing without looking like you’re hauling contraband to a Phish show by getting a carrier like the Beco Gemini or the Ergo 360. The conventional guidelines around these carriers state that your baby should be around 6 months old before you carry them on your back. However, Gokhale believes you can use certain cloth wrap styles as early as 3 weeks. You might want to do some isometric exercises to get ready for carrying your older kid (especially if you’re jumping into it for the first time with a bigger kid). But whatever contraption you choose, be prepared for your kid’s new favorite game: “Cover Daddy’s Eyes While He’s Walking.”

How to Fix Back Pain From Carrying a Baby Wrong

1. Expand Your Spine
Gokhale swears you can “learn how to make yourself slenderer and taller” by strengthening rarely accessed muscles in your abdomen and back. Without arching, take a deep breath in and “grow tall” (Basically, imagine there’s a string pulling the top of your head straight up). Maintain that new length in your spine as you exhale and repeat. This can actually decompress the discs and nerves in your back while strengthening muscles you didn’t even know you had. Six feet, here you come!

2. Engage Your “Inner Corset”
You most likely associate corsets with whatever you should have bought your wife for Valentine’s Day, but Gokhale is talking about “the three deeper layers of muscles in your belly and the deepest layer of muscles in your back.” For all you kinesiology nerds, that’s the internal obliques, the external obliques, the transversus abdominis, and the rotatores (deep in the back).

These are the muscles you need properly configured to carry heavy loads and/or squirming kids without injuring yourself. And they’re way deeper than whatever your Barry’s Bootcamp instructor is trying to get you to engage with all those crunches and pelvis tucks. Gokhale recommends lots of planking but advises that you can also work these muscles by squeezing your glutes with every step as you walk. Your back and your wife will thank you for it.

3. Reset Your Shoulders
“Having your shoulders pulled forward gets old quickly,” Gokhale says. She recommends a simple shoulder roll exercise that essentially ratchets your joint tissue back a few notches. One side at a time, move your shoulder forward, upward, and as far back as possible without moving your body significantly, then gently slide your shoulder blade down along your spine. You should notice your shoulder settling further back than usual without you having to hold it there.