How to Protect Our Tiny Sherpas from Heavy School Backpacks

It's National School Backpack Awareness Day, which means it's a good time for parents to assess if their children's backpacks are just too heavy for them.

kids with backpacks walking into school
Photo: Shutterstock

Today is National School Backpack Awareness Day, which means it's a good time for parents to assess if their children's backpacks are just too heavy for them. The weight of backpacks has been a topic of discussion for more than a decade, with studies finding kids complaining of sore backs due to their daily school lugging and the average backpack weighing in at 8 pounds—but in some cases reaching almost 30 pounds!

I remember lugging around a weighty load of books as a school kid, don't you? Of course, it wasn't cool to use more than one backpack strap, so we all leaned to one side as we headed home from school. I have self-diagnosed the constant crick on the left side of my neck as a consequence of this routine.

I would like to protect my daughter from ending up with a similar fate, and so far, as she is only a fourth-grader this year, using two straps is still acceptable. I try to encourage her to carry her own bag the four blocks we walk to and from school, but sometimes she begs me or her dad to lug it instead. As much as I want to teach her self reliance, when I see her struggling to even stand up straight with the pack on her back, I have to give in and take it from her. If it seems heavy to me, it must be unbearable for her 8-year-old body.

There's folders and workbooks and notebooks, oh my! Not to mention the stay-cold lunch bag and bottle of water, which adds more weight when full in the mornings. I remember when the backpacks with wheels were popular and kids pulled them around like tiny airport travelers. I don't see them as much as I used to, though, and they are actually not allowed at my daughter's school; kids have to walk up several flights of stairs to their classrooms so they just aren't practical.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that a child's backpack weigh no more than 10 to 20 percent of his weight, but have you ever actually weighed your child's backpack and done the math? I know I haven't, but I think today is the day to do it.

Unfortunately, we may not be able to reduce the weight of the backpack if everything our children are bringing home is necessary for homework. In that case, the AAP recommends the following:

  • Choose a backpack with wide, padded shoulder straps and a padded back.
  • Use all of the backpack's compartments. Pack heavier items closest to the center of the back.
  • Encourage your child to always use both shoulder straps.
  • If your school allows, consider a rolling backpack. Remember that theystill must be carried up stairs, may be difficult to roll in snow, and may not fit in some lockers.

I also asked Jaime Quinn, DPT, partner and regional clinical director of Professional Physical Therapy in New York, for some advice on how to help reduce any damage caused by carrying a heavy load.

"Heavy backpacks may cause the wearer to bend forward, causing increased strain on the lower back. This can ultimately result in a forward head and rounded shoulder posture, which can cause tight pectoralis [chest] muscles and excessive strain on the neck," Quinn says. She suggests chest and upper back/shoulder stretches, as well as light muscle-building exercises, which may improve the flexibility of these muscles and prevent long-term posture problems.

"It's important to keep in mind that your back and core offer major support," Quinn says. "Keeping your back and core muscles strong may also improve posture and the ability to carry a heavier bag for longer periods." She suggests exercises such as shoulder blade retractions, rows, and chin tucks, to help reduce the risk of injury to neck and shoulders, as well asxercises that may help strengthen the back and core muscles: rows, lat pull downs, planks, and other ab-strengthening exercises. "Most importantly, being physically fit may reduce the strain of the weight on the body."

Ellen Sturm Niz is a New York City-based editor and writer. Check out Ellen's new Etsy shop and follow her on Twitter and Pinterest.

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