Carrying Kids and Wrist Pain

Carrying stuff in your arms is tough. And by carrying I don’t mean picking up heavy stuff 5-20 times in a row, but sustained, long-duration carrying. Think carrying your kid for a few miles.

I’ve posted before on adjusting certain body parts (like your ribs or shoulders) if a part is ailing you after lots of holding, but this post is about the wrist pain that can sometimes come with carrying kids. (Actually, you can apply this info to many other things, so even if you don’t have or carry kids, you’ll find some iota here that you can apply to other ways you repetitively load your body.)

As you probably know, the body’s basic program is to expend as little energy as possible. This means you come with a huge bag of tricks that allows you to do an activity utilizing as much passive force as possible. Which means that you can carry a kid using less muscle force than what you could be using. WHY WOULD YOU WANT TO USE MORE MUSCLE TO CARRY SOMETHING? Well, there lies the rub. When you’re applying a load to the body and not generating a force, the work is done by other tissues–and in most cases, tissues can’t adapt to respond to the load, which means you  slowly sacrifice that tissue.

In the case of wrists, it goes like this: You’re holding your kid in your arms, but by holding one hand with the other, the arms muscles work less and more work is done by the sling-like structure you’ve created by grasping your wrist.

photo 1(3)

Can you feel how much tension (pulling one end of something away from the other) you’ve created at the wrist?

On one hand (get it?), utilizing a tractioning force like this is great because your arms get a break. On the other hand (which is actually the same hand anatomically speaking–I’m using “other hand” as an idiom, not a description of the anatomy) it’s bad for the wrist’s connective tissue, which is slowly deforming under the load.

Want to see how much of the work you’ve given to deforming tissue? Stop holding your wrist and either hold with one arm or with two, non-connecting arms.

photo 2(4)

Boom. See what the full load feels like? That’s how much more muscular force could be going into the equation. (And if you thought it was easy to get these photos, YOU WERE WRONG. I wish I had a video of the 23 second wrestling match that ensued. I lost, in case you were wondering.)

If you have a sore wrist, my first suggestion would be to stop pulling on it so much. Let your arms, slowly, adapt to doing more work. To transition slowly, you’ll need to find a way to give your arm muscles a break. To assist yourself as you build strength:

1. Find a slightly different part of the arms to hold on to.
2. Use your other arm more often.
3. Teach your kids to hold on to you (NO FREELOADING!).
4. Carry on your shoulders and on your back more frequently (i.e. don’t just go in-arms, or only in right arm or in left arm because that’s your habit).

While you might be most interested in figuring out a better way of holding because of your sore wrist (or shoulder or back or whatever), changing positions regularly is not only good for you, it’s good for the kid–who should be rotating around your body anyways. Just like baby-led weaning, baby-led moving (i.e. the kid-initiated assumption of numerous positions relative to you and gravity) is what cultivates new muscle patterns and strength. Everybody cross-trains, every body wins!

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14 thoughts on “Carrying Kids and Wrist Pain

  1. Hi Katy,

    Thanks for this. I am finding that I have a lot of wrist pain despite never holding onto my wrist with my other hand while baby carrying. Is this caused by something different? Based on your earlier post on using biceps to hold the baby rather than rib thrusting, I’ve been holding my daughter (almost one year old) with either my right or left arm only, and am still getting really bad wrist pain especially right below my thumb. I wonder if I’m cocking my wrist at a funny angle or something?

    1. Yes, check that you’re not creating unnecessary tension in your hand. Similar to grimacing your face when doing something hard on your legs or arms, you might be tensing your hands for no reason–just because you are recruiting your arms in a “clump,” if that makes sense…

    2. Another possibility might be that you’re bunching your shoulder (kind of like a shrug that never un-shrugs). I did this a lot when carrying my kids and found that I was pinching the nerves that run through the shoulder and down to the hand. I ended up with a lot of pain at the base of my thumb and along the side of my hand below my pinky. I forget the nerve names but I think one was the ulnar. Anyway, the shoulder bunching is now a part of my regular stance and I’m still trying to work it out.

  2. Among the mamas in my immediate circle and others in our community, the most prevalent wrist issue by far seems to be De Quervain’s Tenosynovitis (I had it too!). I was hoping you might offer some specific advice for that — I’m sure it falls under the realm of “check that you’re not creating unnecessary tension in your hand” but anything else you might suggest that I could pass along? (Questions about De Quervain’s/”mommy’s wrist” come up with surprising regularity on online groups and at yoga class.)

  3. I keep wondering, since my children are both 6’3″ now, and they really don’t appreciate me trying to carry them around any more, what can I do to add more “loads” to my arms? I try with the laundry basket, buckets, etc., but really, in my day-to-day life, I don’t do that a lot. Appreciate any feedback, suggestions! I am hanging from trees, much to the amusement of some local drivers at work!

  4. Could this be the cause f wrist pain when doing a plank or other exercise that requires going down on all fours? I often have to switch to fists down, over flat palm, due to my wrist pain in that position.

  5. I don’t have kids but I’m curious, how do you teach them to hold on to you? Especially if you’re starting at the newborn stage?

  6. NewEnglandGirl,

    Do you pick your baby up by scooping under her arms with the web between your thumb and index finger? I had a bad case of “mum thumb” that went away when I made an effort to use more of my hand surface and grip strength to pick my babies up. Another culprit was pinning a baby to my side with a wrist/forearm for long periods rather than letting them sit on the arm.


  7. Sometimes, it’s not action-related. I am 60 years old, four daughters over the age of 20, and I developed DeQuervains tenosynovitis about 2 years ago. Wrist bands did not help, cortisone shot helped for about 7 weeks, then back to square one terrible pain. It wasn’t until I totally stopped gluten that I got results. 1 1/2 weeks after stopping my only gluten intake (my own home-made sourdough organic rye bread), the pain was about 80% gone. After three months, no pain and most of the swelling had gone down. Now, after 7 months of totally gluten-free eating, no pain, no swelling, and I can do push-ups and pull-ups. I hope this helps someone out there.

  8. I use a woven wrap. it distributes my lo’s weight across my whole back. I’ve even done a 2 hour movement workshop with him in it. he was 20+ Lbs at the time. save your arms/back/shoulders, wear the kid.

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