The Good & Bad of Backpacks


From the time your four-year-old walks into preschool with his action hero backpack, schoolbags become part of your child’s life. On one hand, they are a great way to make sure papers, homework and books arrive home from school and are returned the next day. But on the other hand, overloaded backpacks are responsible for muscle strain as well as back, neck and shoulder pain.

Way overweight

For the 40 million children in the United States who carry backpacks, the major problem is the weight they carry. A backpack should never weigh more than 15 percent of a child’s weight.

If you have a 60-pound child carrying a 20-pound backpack, he’s carrying a third of his own weight ­— and twice what he should be carrying.

Overweight backpacks lead to many back, shoulder and neck problems. In fact, the Consumer Product Safety Commission estimates that 4,928 emergency room visits each year are a result of injuries related to book bags.

Backpacks do not cause spinal deformities such as scoliosis, however they can “create poor posture in the short term, secondary to pain and muscle fatigue,” says Dr. Daniel Hedequist of the Spine Program at the Children’s Hospital in Boston. Hedequist sees most of the problems starting in middle school age children who either wear the backpack wrong or carry too much weight.

Backpacks that are too heavy pull a child backwards and he may lean forward, bend forward at the hips or arch his back. That leads to neck, back and shoulder pain. A backpack worn on just one shoulder pulls the child to the side and he may try to lean the other way to offset the weight leading to upper and lower back pain. Extra weight, pulling on tight or narrow straps cause them to dig into the child’s shoulders cutting off circulation or pinching nerves.

Lose the weight

The best solution for heavy backpacks is to buy a backpack on wheels. However, many schools have banned them due to the extra room they take up and because of accidents associated with wheeled backpacks.

The other solution is to lighten your child’s load. Middle school students may find it easier to carry their books during the school day rather than go to their lockers and exchange books. Find out if your child is doing this and talk to her about possible solutions.

Many students bring everything home at the end of the day. Besides notebooks and school books, you’ll find chapter books, water bottles and sports equipment stuffed into backpacks.

Have your child unload his backpack each night and take a look at what’s in it. Does he need every book for homework? Are there books other than schoolbooks? What unrelated things can she leave home? If you sort extras out and the bag is still too heavy, ask the teacher for an extra set of books that your child can keep at home to avoid carrying heavy books back and forth each night.

Choosing a backpack

Backpacks come in all shapes and sizes. It’s important to choose the best backpack for your child. Start by choosing the correct size. When your child has the backpack on using both straps, the bottom of the backpack should rest against his lower back. No matter how desirable a certain backpack is, if the bottom is lower than 4 inches below the waist, look for a smaller one.

Look for a backpack with wide, well-padded shoulder straps. Straps can injure blood vessels and nerves in the neck and shoulders. Make sure that the straps can be adjusted to fit the backpack to your child. If you can find a backpack with a waist strap, that’s a bonus because using a waist strap helps distribute the weight.

Choose a sturdy bag that will hold up well under the weight. Make sure it is well constructed. Bags with multiple compartments can help distribute the content’s weight more evenly.

Your daughter may have her heart set on the latest character backpack, but although appearance is important to a child, safety issues need to outweigh that. This is less important for the preschool or kindergarten child who may only use the backpack to carry a few papers back and forth. But once a child starts carrying books, don’t compromise on the safety factors. You pick the backpack; they pick the lunch box.

Wear it right

Wearing a back pack over one shoulder may be cool, but it’s not healthy, according to Barbara Kornblau, Professor of Occupational Therapy and Public Health at Nova Southeastern University, Fort Lauderdale. Backpacks should be worn with both shoulder straps and waist strap all properly adjusted. The pack should fit snuggly against the child’s back.

The heaviest items should be closest to the child’s back and center of gravity. Pack so that books don’t slide around. Avoid a top heavy backpack which will pull the child backwards.

Backpacks are a great way to get organized and transport school books back and forth. Take time to weigh you child wearing her backpack and then without it to find its weight. If it’s more than 15 percent of your child’s weight or poorly loaded and organized, it’s time to lighten up and reorganize.

By Katrina Cassel