Backpacks are an essential part of most kids’ back-to-school arsenal. Backpacks are a handy way to keep books, folders, papers and other supplies neat and organized while going back and forth to school. When worn correctly, backpacks are safe for most children because the weight of the pack is distributed throughout the body and supported by the strongest muscles- the abdomen and back muscles. Unlike shoulder bags, messenger bags or purses, backpacks are less likely to cause back or neck injuries. However, when worn incorrectly or with too much weight, backpacks can lead to muscle strain and injury to joints. Knowing how to position a backpack correctly, load it properly, and determine how much weight is too much for your child will help keep him or her safe and injury free.
Choosing the Right Backpack
Choosing the right backpack is the first step to ensuring your child is safe from backpack-related injury. The American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons suggests choosing a backpack that includes the following safety features:
- Two wide, padded shoulder straps
- Padded back for extra comfort and protection from sharp objects
- Waist strap for even weight distribution
- Multiple compartments for added weight distribution
- Light weight
Some backpacks have wheels so children can alternate between carrying them and rolling them like a cart. Although helpful over long distances, backpacks with wheels are not practical for older students who change classes on an hourly basis. Wheeled backpacks can clog up hallways and are a safety hazard. Check with your child’s school to see if wheeled backpacks are permitted before purchasing them.
Even if you purchase a backpack with two straps, your child may not always wear both. However, wearing both straps at all times is the only way to prevent injury. Talk to your child about the importance of putting on both straps, even when carrying the backpack for a short amount of time. The Texas A&M AgriLife extension recommends teaching your child the following steps for properly lifting and positioning a backpack:
- Face the backpack before lifting it
- Bend at the knees and use both hands to pick up the backpack
- Lift the backpack with your legs, never your back
- Carefully put on one shoulder strap at a time; never sling your backpack over one shoulder
- Fasten the waist belt
Taking a few extra minutes to follow these steps can go a long way to preventing a life-time of back pain for your child.
Filling Your Child’s Backpack
Although most kids pack backpacks like they put their clothes away, filling a backpack properly can help distribute the weight of the pack more evenly. Resist the temptation to place heavier items in first, resting directly on the back. Larger, heavier items should actually be placed low and in the middle of the load to help distribute the weight of the backpack. It’s important to use backpack compartments for smaller items whenever possible to more evenly distribute weight. Children also tend to pack more than is needed in the backpacks to make sure all of their bases are covered. This is especially true for middle-school students who are notorious for forgetting items at home. Work with your child to make sure he or she is only taking items that are absolutely necessary for that day. Talk to your child about using his locker throughout the school day rather than carrying a full backpack to each class. Encourage your child to pack a separate bag with gym clothes, shoes or other things he might need for after-school sports. Having an extra bag with these items can remove some of the weight that is carried on the back.
Backpack Weight Safety
One of the biggest areas of concern for backpack safety is the weight your child is carrying throughout the school day. The KidsHealth website recommends that a child carry no more than 10 to 15 percent of their body weight in their backpacks. The spine is made up of 33 vertebrae, and between the vertebrae are discs that protect the bones like shock absorbers. When a backpack is too heavy, it pulls a child backwards, and the child may compensate by bending forward at the hips or arching the back. This can cause the spine to compress in an unnatural way. Over time, this can lead to back, neck and shoulder pain.
If you feel your child’s backpack is too heavy on a regular basis, talk to your child’s teacher about the amount of material he or she is carrying to and from school. The teacher may not be aware there is a problem, and communicating about this issue may be the best way to lighten the load.