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Backpack Safety Tips

Backpacks are a necessary item for carrying books to and from school each day. And when used correctly, they distribute weight to the strongest muscles of the body in the most practical way possible. But if a child is carrying the wrong backpack or isn't wearing it correctly, it can lead to serious back problems.

In fact, young children are suffering from back pain much earlier than in previous generations, and the use of overweight backpacks is a significant contributing factor, according to the American Chiropractic Association (ACA). Kids today are carrying more weight than ever in their backpacks -- often slung over just one shoulder. A recent study conducted in Italy found that the average child carries a backpack that would be the equivalent of a 39-pound burden for a 176-pound man, or a 29-pound load for a 132-pound woman.

Read on to find out what you can do to minimize the stress on your child's back.

Start by purchasing the backpack that will distribute the weight most efficiently. Remember -- bigger is not necessarily better. The more room there is in a backpack, the more your child will carry, and the heavier the backpack will be. Look for these characteristics when choosing a backpack:

  • Two shoulder straps: A backpack with only one shoulder strap that goes around the neck does not distribute weight evenly.
  • Wide, padded shoulder straps: Narrow straps can dig into the shoulders and hinder your child's circulation.
  • Adjustable shoulder straps: The shoulder straps should be adjustable so the backpack can be fitted to your child's body. Straps that are too loose can cause the backpack to dangle uncomfortably and cause spinal misalignment and pain.
  • Padded back: This prevents sharp objects from digging into your child's back and possibly altering his posture.
  • Waist strap: A waist strap takes even more weight off the shoulders.
  • Lightweight: Make sure that the backpack itself doesn't add too much weight to the load.
  • Individualized compartments: Distributing the items into separate compartments can help in positioning the contents most effectively.

While it may look cool to wear a backpack on one shoulder, it can potentially be very damaging to a child's back. Make sure your child follows these guidelines when putting on her backpack.

  • Always wear both shoulder straps. Wearing a backpack on one shoulder can lead to muscle spasms in the neck, shoulders, or lower back, and could even increase the curvature of the spine.
  • Tighten the straps until the pack is close to your child's body. The backpack should never hang more than four inches below the waistline. A backpack that hangs too low increases the weight on the shoulders, causing your child to lean forward when walking.
  • Pack light. The backpack should never weigh more than 10 percent of your child's body weight. A heavier backpack will cause your child to bend forward in an attempt to support the weight on his or her back, rather than on the shoulders.
  • Use all the compartments. Spread the items out throughout the backpack. Put the heaviest things closest to the center of the back.
  • Bend down by bending both knees. Teach your child to bend at the knees instead of the waist while wearing or picking up a heavy backpack.

Encourage your child to talk to you about any back pain they might be feeling. If your child expresses any discomfort as a result of carrying a backpack:

  • Talk to the school. Express your concerns to teachers and school leaders about the weight that kids must carry. Make sure that the school does not require kids to carry their books around all day.
  • Make contact with other parents. If necessary, form a coalition with other parents in your school district to negotiate with the school about its book-carrying requirements.
  • Contact your pediatrician. Back pain should not be taken lightly. Tell your pediatrician about any discomfort that your child is suffering.

Sources: American Academy of Pediatrics; American Chiropractic Association

The information on this Web site is designed for educational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for informed medical advice or care. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat any health problems or illnesses without consulting your pediatrician or family doctor. Please consult a doctor with any questions or concerns you might have regarding your or your child's condition.