If you ever watched your dad inexplicably “throw out” his back and wonder what the hell happened to the poor old guy, maybe now you know: Carrying a kid around all day 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?
Esther Gokhale (“Go-clay”) knows, because she’s spent 20 years studying indigenous populations in Burkina Faso, India, Brazilian fishing villages, and elsewhere. It turns out there are a few specific ways you should carry the kid, as well as some practical ways to maintain your back muscles and spine so you actually get stronger as the kid gets older. Because they’re not getting any lighter. But if your ancestors could haul fresh kills for miles back to their hand-built huts, you should be able to carry your kid for a half hour without having to call a chiropractor.
How To Carry Them
When They’re Younger Than 6 Months
The trick is to hold your kid in a way that serves both of you, which 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 the hand, wrist, or forearm to bear the weight, and face your palm up.
Here’s why this 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 actually improves your circulation as well. Bonus points for keeping your kid’s spine aligned properly at the same time. “There’s a logic to the traditional methods of carrying kids,” says Gokhale. “Helping their posture helps reduce the load on your system. I’m always looking for these dual benefits.”
When They’re Older Than 6 Months
There are 2 reasons the Bhil people of Central India don’t cruise around with their kids in Baby Bjorns. First, they overload and pull your shoulders 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, they haul them on their backs.
Gokhale is a big believer in those traditional African carrying cloths you swore you’d never be caught dead in, because they’re a quick and comfortable way to wrap your kid onto your back. “That’s as close to your spine as you can get,” she points out, while failing to mention that 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 those carriers state that your baby should be around 6 months old before you put them on your back, while Gokhale believes certain cloth wrap styles can be used as early as 3 weeks. Whatever contraption you choose, be prepared for your kid’s new favorite game: “Cover Daddy’s Eyes While He’s Walking.”
How To Recover When You Carry Them Wrong
Reset Your Shoulders
“Having your shoulders pulled forward gets old quickly,” says Gokhale. 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.
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!
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 3 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 ( this kind, not that kind), but advises that you can actually work these muscles by simply squeezing your glutes with every step as you walk. Your back and your wife will thank you for it.
How To Remember All This Stuff
Think Of The Children
You have an example of the perfect back right in front of you: your kid’s. The well-aligned one with the butt sticking out slightly and the unrolled shoulders — that’s how you should look. Your kid hasn’t endured the years of repeated stress and abuse that lead to chronic back pain; They’re just instinctively holding their head up, naturally, like their ancestors did. This may be the one life scenario in which you want to imitate your toddler.