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Watch That Backpack Load

Learn how to keep your child’s back safe

Appropriate backpack choices for keeping kids’ backs healthy

Most children rely on backpacks to carry books and supplies to and from school and activities. But a backpack that’s too heavy or doesn’t fit properly can cause harm.

“Children can hurt themselves by using poor posture to carry a heavy bag,” says chiropractor Deborah Gonzalez Alonso, DC, with Lehigh Valley Orthopedic Institute. “They may arch their back, bend forward, twist or lean to one side.”

These positions can change the spine’s alignment so its disks can’t absorb shock as they should. Backpacks can injure muscles and joints in the back, neck and shoulders, and can cause problems with posture. In rare cases, nerve damage can occur.

Choosing the right backpack

“The backpack should be at a comfortable weight. Weigh it on a scale. When full, it shouldn’t be more than 5% to 10% of your child’s body weight.” - Deborah Gonzalez Alonso, DC

Pick backpacks for your children that have the following traits:

  • Lightweight, but strong
  • Two wide, padded shoulder straps (not just one strap)
  • A padded back to protect against sharp objects inside the bag
  • A waist and chest strap to help keep the bag stable
  • Appropriately sized (isn’t wider than your child’s torso or hanging more than 4 inches below the waist)

Rolling backpacks

“A rolling backpack can be useful if your child is unable to carry a backpack,” Dr. Gonzalez Alonso says. “But a rolling pack can be hard to carry up stairs. It may also be hard to roll over bumpy ground or in congested hallways.”

The American Chiropractic Association recommends using rolling backpacks on a limited basis for students who are physically unable to carry a backpack. Rolling packs can clutter school hallways, resulting in dangerous trips and falls.

“Think about how your child will need to use the bag,” Dr. Gonzalez Alonso says. “In some cases, it may not be the best choice.”

Wearing a backpack safely

Talk with your children about how to safely use a backpack. Help them adjust it. Teach them to:

  • Pack light. “Full backpacks should not exceed 10% of a child's own body weight,” Dr. Gonzalez Alonso says.
  • Organize the backpack well. Place the heavy items low toward the center of the backpack.
  • Only carry what’s needed. “Make sure your children know not to carry a whole day’s worth of books and supplies at once,” Dr. Gonzalez Alonso says. “Tell them to make trips to their locker during the day.”
  • Use care when putting on and taking off their backpacks. Children should avoid twisting too much. When picking up a heavy backpack, bend with both knees – not at the waist.
  • Use both shoulder straps. “This will help spread the weight and promote good posture. Tell your children not to use one strap on one shoulder,” Dr. Gonzalez Alonso says. “This makes the posture off-balance, leading to poor spine alignment.”
  • Place the backpack evenly in the middle of the back. The backpack should sit about 2 inches above the waist. This will help prevent awkward postures.
  • Tighten and loosen the straps as needed. The straps should be snug while wearing the pack. This helps hold the pack firmly to the body. Tell your children to loosen the straps before removing the pack. This makes it easier to take off.

If your child has pain

Talk with your child about any discomfort from the backpack. Watch your child put on and take off the backpack. If your child has pain or numbness in the arms or legs from the bag, talk with the school about ways to lighten the load. Make sure the school allows trips to lockers as needed. If the pain continues, talk with your child’s pediatrician.

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