Toddler Watching and Body Listening: Pointing the Way to Better Posture?

Toddler posture puddle jumpingOne of the joys of having a toddler in the house is watching them learn to use their body in new ways. In just the past five days my daughter has learned the fine arts of pointing, throwing balls, jumping (she almost can get two feet off the ground!), and bending her knees in rhythm to music without falling over. These adorable antics send a wave of adoration though my old bones, and nearly always, if my husband is in the room, we exchange a knowing glance appreciating how cute and special the early years are.

Although not captivating in the same way, my attention has also been focused lately on my daughter’s posture. She sits with a perfectly straight spine like a little meditating yogi, clearly without thought, attention, or hard work. This posture is the one that she will take anytime she is playing on the floor or engrossed in watching the world around her. If I try to sit like that for 2 minutes my back is screaming for a chance to take a break, and pains are rapidly spreading to neck, arms and other more distal regions.

How did I come to have such bad posture? Why do I feel like an old lady at my robust young age? I am a pretty healthy person. I exercise appropriately, eat very well, manage stres,s and practice gratitude. It doesn’t seem like I should be suffering aches and pains from a simple walk around the neighborhood just because I forgot to put on my expensive shoes with the optimal arch support. Or my barefoot minimalist shoes. Or my well-cushioned running shoes. I’ve tried them all.

I’ve had bad posture all my life. Or at least all of my memorable life. My memories of being told to sit up straight are consistent from my earliest recall throughout my years under my parents roof. After baby #1 and baby #2 I gave particular attention to my posture because of a tip in one of my all time favorite postpartum books, After the Baby’s Birth by Robin Lim. (It is no longer in print, but can be found used on Amazon or as an ebook here.) In that book, I learned that the levels of relaxin hormone, which elevated during pregnancy in order to help my pelvis release for birthing, would gradually return to normal levels over 4-8 months postpartum for the average breastfeeding mother. This period is an optimal window to “reset” the bones in proper alignment for long term health after the adjusts made to accommodate the weight of pregnancy — or in my case the adjustments made due to a lifetime of bad posture. I was thrilled, and was highly motivated not to miss this incredible opportunity. Bad posture, despite my best efforts, was a plague in my life already in my twenties. I don’t recall having the stiffness and pain I do now, but I was already unsatisfied with the impact on my appearance in photographs, and worried that as an old lady I would spend my days staring at the ground unable to straighten up.

My program of postural mindfulness paid off after baby 1 and 2. With each postpartum period, I made significant gains toward my quest for an upright stance. People even began to comment on how I looked more like my Aunt Grace, who has beautiful posture. While they may not realize why I was favoring my tall and graceful aunt more these days, I was convinced it was my change in posture. I was feeling satisfied with my profile in print, and both taller and healthier then I ever had.

Then came along baby #3. Eager to experience the postpartum advantage once again, I brought the same mindfulness to my posture in the months after this baby. But I also overworked and put myself through a high-demand time balancing full time school, work, and mommy-hood. Stress and strain have a great impact on the body, especially postpartum when the body deserves a sacred period of renewal. The result of my failure to honor this need is that my body is now, at 13 months postpartum, weak in areas where strength is needed, and despite my best efforts, holding decent posture is a major effort and causes me pain. I ache trying to sit up straight for the “easy” part of yoga class — you know, the calm opening moments of setting an intention and the closing namaste. The tension in my shoulders keeps me up and night and causes my fingers to tingle. If I sit at ease I collapse in a forward curve losing about 6 inches to my height. I don’t understand it. My massage therapist friend says its muscle memory, and my cranial sacral / shamanic healer friend says it core strength. Both suggest plank pose. I’ve found some relief through Sagarra’s core yoga app, which I love. It’s not that I haven’t tried or that I’m being lazy, I just can’t seem to force myself into better alignment. A doula client recently sent me a picture of me supporting her through her birth, and in a disheartening moment looking at that photo I realized I lost 10 years of progress on my posture with this last pregnancy. I should be worried once again about how I will stand as an old lady, but at this point I’m more upset by the impact on my beauty.

Yesterday I pushed our jogger stroller around the neighborhood in some cheap flip flops in an attempt to put my daughter to sleep during a 4th of July party. Apparently my quest for the perfect shoes is helping my bones, because I was a mess by the end of it and ended up needing an epsom salt soak. While in the tub, my daughter played on the bathroom floor, completely at ease sitting with her baby-beautiful, perfectly vertical posture. How can I help her preserve it? How can I prevent for her the intense need for exercise, stretching, and attention it takes for me to work towards posture that clearly begins so naturally?

I turned to google. And amazingly I found this youtube video.

It could not have been more exactly what I was looking for. And more impressive than that, I also found this great article entitled, Toddlers as Teachers, that outlines 5 steps for aligning your body using the mechanics a toddler uses to balance their big ol’heads on their little spines. My favorite part of this article is where the author says that because of their head size, if a toddler tucks their butt or sticks out their sternum they will fall down. I’ve seen falls caused by both of these as I watch my adorable daughter figure out how to get around in two feet like the adult humans in her world! Suddenly, there was a click for me. I read and tried out her tips, and in about a minute I was sitting perfectly straight, comfortably, for the first time in my memorable life. It was an amazing moment! I was able to hold the posture easily and continue reading for at least 10 minutes before fatigue started to set in. That may not sound like much, but it’s a minor miracle for me!

Walking around my house with this new alignment was harder. I couldn’t figure out how to follow her instructions. In a flash I thought, “Walk like she does.” Off I went, imitating my 13 month old – sticking out my little diaper butt (OK, I didn’t wear a diaper) and letting my shoulders be broad – and I got it! Now that I’ve felt it (and it feels great), I will be on a mission to put these new tips into practice. I’m going to buy her book if I can’t get it from the library. I don’t normally follow up so quickly on an internet find, but as I tried out her initial ideas, I felt a helpful difference in my own body. And the approach fits some of my core beliefs, namely that children can be our teachers and that we are wisely designed. There are two versions of her message – a book for adults and a book for teaching your children to learn or preserve their own good posture. Her approach is a far cry from the demands to “sit up straight” that didn’t work for me. As the mother of not only a straight-spined toddler, but also a slouchy 9 year old – who is so beautiful when she stands tall – I am excited to try these ideas out in our home. Perhaps in a few months this blog post will be part of the back-story that allows me to write an informative and truthful article about postpartum spine health. It’s always fun to learn – may this be the start of some good new knowledge.

Her book was originally titled Ageless Spine, Lasting Health: The Open Secret to Pain-Free Living and Comfortable Aging, but is being re-published under the title Natural Posture for Pain-Free Living: The Practice of Mindful Alignment. The book geared towards young children is called, Sad Dog, Happy Dog: How Poor Posture Affects Your Child’s Health and What You Can Do About It.

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