By September 16, National School Backpack Awareness Day, over 79 million students will go back to school. Many will carry a heavy load to school, especially if they’re starting middle school, where they carry more books, supplies, equipment and electronics than before. It seems like they pack their school lockers in their backpacks and carry them to and from school every day. But overloaded backpacks on children can cause pain and injury that often continue throughout adulthood.
In fact, a 2009 University of California study showed that 64% of American students aged 11 to 15 complained of back pain from heavy backpacks, and 21% reported that the pain lasted more than six months. Moreover, experts say 80% of adults have experienced back pain at some point in their lives, and it can start in childhood.
But it’s not just kids’ backs that can be harmed by weighty backpacks.
“Shoulder rotator cuffs and joints, elbows, wrists, hips and legs can be injured by improper lifting or carrying of heavy backpacks,” warns chiropractor Wm. Todd Fisher, DC of Chantilly Chiropractic Center, PC in Chantilly, VA. “Further, a child’s growth plates and the discs in their back and neck can be damaged, setting them up for a lifetime of back problems,” he states.
So what’s the solution? Choose the right backpack for your child’s size and needs. Here are some keys to choosing the right backpack.
Choose Back Safety Over Stylishness
We know kids love to be “cool,” especially tweens and teens. And it’s important to get your kids things they won’t stuff in the back of the closet and refuse to use. But preventing a lifetime of back injuries may mean sacrificing a little style. Moreover, says Dr. Fisher, “Bigger isn’t better, either.” And neither is cheaper.
So how do Dr. Fisher and other experts recommend you choose a backpack? “Start with knowing your child’s weight and height,” he says. “A backpack should never fall more than four inches below the child’s waistline, nor should it be heavier than 10% of their weight.” A backpack that’s too heavy and too low causes the child to bend forward to balance it, leading to neck and back strain. So it should be at shoulder level and never sag away from the body.
Sometimes the most stylish backpacks lead to serious, long-term musculoskeletal problems in children because they break all of these rules.
Gary Sato, DC, a California chiropractor, Assistant Coach of USC Men's Volleyball and Assistant Coach of USA Men’s Volleyball during the 1988, 1992 and 2012 Olympics, agrees. The father of three, including two teens, he says, “It’s terrible to see kids have back pain that continues into adulthood, so it’s critical that parents convey to them the importance of back care over stylishness.” In other words, this is another area where peer pressure can have long-term health consequences. Besides, you can buy some stylish backpacks and still keep your kids’ backs safe.
What Features Should a Good Backpack Have?
In addition to being high-quality, meaning durable enough to hold heavier loads without excessive sagging and having a reflector, Dr. Fisher suggests backpacks have the following features:
- Have wide, thick, padded, adjustable, well-made shoulder straps. This type of straps helps keep the backpack on securely and distribute the weight more evenly across the shoulders and back. They also prevent damage to the child’s flesh and muscles from cutting into the shoulders.
- Be the right size for the child and their uses. Again, bigger is not better, but smaller than needed (like many of the drawstring bags) is not cool, either. Both can be harmful, since kids are likely to overload bigger backpacks, and the poor construction of many drawstring bags makes them inappropriate for heavier loads.
- Have sternum and hip straps. These straps across the stomach and around the hips help balance the load of the backpacks and stabilize them on your kids’ backs.
- Have ample compartments. Not only is this a way for kids to carry more delicate items more securely and with less damage (especially if the compartment is padded for electronics), but also the weight of the backpack gets more evenly distributed.
- Be padded on the back and have air bladders in the right places. Both keep the contents of the backpack from injuring the body and help balance its weight.
- Have wheels, in some cases, with sturdy pulling handles. Wheels allow backpacks to be rolled, which takes most of the strain off children’s growing bodies. But be careful with these, because wheels often mean users overload them; they have to be lifted to be carried onto the school bus and down stairs. Lifting heavy bags can cause strain, and these can cause other safety issues, too. So make sure your child’s school allows them.
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Dr. Sato agrees with these features, adding, “Backpacks should also be breathable so kids don’t sweat while carrying them.” Breathability will help backpacks last longer (since the salt in sweat can break some fabrics down) and not carry odors.
How Should Your Kids Load and Carry Their Backpacks?
In order to choose correctly, you’ll need to know what your child will be carrying and how. In addition to this nifty chart provided by The American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA),which shows parents and students how to both pack and wear their backpacks, Dr. Fisher has a few other suggestions. “Backpacks should not be worn lower than four inches below a child’s natural waistline because that forces them to lean forward to balance the load,” he explains. That can cause strain across the child’s musculoskeletal system, including back, neck, hip flexors, ankles and feet.
He adds they should be securely fastened on a child’s body to make sure the backpack is high and close to the body. He suggests children, “stand in front of a mirror after loading their backpack to check posture.” If they find themselves leaning forward, they should remove some of the contents of the backpack. Watch this Boston University video for additional considerations about properly choosing, loading and wearing a backpack.
Also, this video provides additional wearing information, including warning signs the backpack is too heavy. Dr. Sato says it’s OK for kids to carry additional bags if their backpacks are too heavy but, in general, kids should not be overloaded carrying them.
Where Should You Purchase Backpacks?
Start with the school’s supply list to determine what kind of backpack your child is allowed to carry to school. Then go shopping. It’s likely that the more children you have, the more budget-conscious you’ll be. Both doctors agree that this is understandable, but say that it’s just as important to consider your child’s long-term musculoskeletal health when purchasing their backpack. Don’t automatically choose the cheapest option at a discount retailer. That may not be the best backpack for your child’s size or needs.
Moreover, while there are numerous high-end brands to choose from, Dr. Fisher recommends the AirPack brand. Other popular brands are REI, JanSport, L.L.Bean, Kipling, Herschel and North Face. But whatever brand you choose, make sure it meets the criteria above, including those from the AOTA. Dr. Sato recommends that you go in to the retailer, look at backpacks and try them on your child, and then go online to buy them at the best price.
If you follow these strategies for choosing, loading and wearing a backpack, your child is less likely to be injured carrying one.