School Backpacks! Everything You Need to Know

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backpack filled with school items

From a child's viewpoint, backpacks have to look cool, represent their personality or make a social, fashion statement.  From a parent's perspective, they want their child's backpack to be comfortable and appropriate for the curriculum during the school year.

Some children experience back strain due to heavy backpacks they tote around all day long to, from, and during school.  

Doctors and physical therapists recommend your children carry no more than 10% to 15% of their body weight in their backpacks.  As a rule, this amounts to about 2 to 4 kilograms (about 5 to 10 lbs.) for elementary students and about 7 kilograms (about 15 lbs.) for older students. 

The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS) and the Pediatric Orthopaedic Society of North America urge parents and kids to consider safety first to avoid backpack-related injuries.

young boy carrying a red backpack

“Backpacks are designed to distribute the weight of load among some of the body’s strongest muscles,” said orthopaedic surgeon and AAOS spokesperson Michael Wade Shrader, MD.  

“But, when worn incorrectly, injuries such as strains, sprains and posture problems can occur.  While some of these injuries can be minor, others can have a lasting effect on kids, and follow them into adulthood,” adds Shrader.

To Prevent Injury

  • Keep the weight manageable.
  • The shoulder straps of last year's backpack may need refitting.
  • Using both shoulder straps, centre the backpack between the shoulder blades. This will ensure that the weight of the backpack will be evenly distributed and promote good posture.
The wrong way and right way to wear a backpack
  • Using only one strap loads the entire weight of the backpack over one shoulder resulting in strain to the back, neck, shoulders, joints and muscles. Leaning forward may affect the natural curve in the lower back and increase the curve of the upper back and shoulders.
  • Tighten the straps so that the backpack is close to your child's body. The straps should hold the backpack 2 inches above the waist.
  • Organize the backpack so that all the compartments are used. This will not only distribute the weight of the backpack evenly but also provide easy access for many choice items.

Simple, Every Day Health and Safety Tips for your Children

  • Maintain good posture at all times - standing tall with your head and neck aligned with your shoulders. Keep your shoulders back and down.  
  • Practice squeezing your shoulder blades together and then rotate your palms to face outwards. Hold for 30 seconds and repeat five times.
  • Keep the heaviest items closest to the back and near the bottom of the backpack. If the heaviest items are at the top, it can throw your child's balance off.  The backpack itself should rest below the bottom of the neck and above the curve at the bottom of the spine.
girl bending down while carrying a backpack
  • When reaching down bend both your knees and alternately, when you are picking up your backpack, bend both knees. Do not bend over at the waist when wearing or lifting a backpack.
  • When you have an opportunity to take your backpack off - do it! Give your back and muscles a break! 
  • Stop often at your school locker. Do not carry all of the books through the course of the school day.
  • School backpacks are for schoolwork. Carry only those items that are required for the day.  If possible, leave books at home or school.
  • If you have the opportunity - pack light!
  • Organize your backpack weekly and remove all unnecessary items.
  • Kids who carry large backpacks are not aware that when they turn around or move through tight spaces, i.e. in the aisle on the school bus, sidewalks, streetcars and subways, they can knock people over that are not in their view.
  • Carrying a heavy backpack changes the way children walk and keeps them slightly off balance, which increases the risk of falling, particularly on staircases.

Purchasing a Backpack

Girl walking to school wearing a backpack
child wearing a light blue backpack

Today backpacks come in all sizes, colours, fabrics, and shapes and when used properly, they're incredibly handy.  Backpacks often feature multiple compartments that help students stay organized while they tote their books, binders, papers, running shoes, gym clothes, and other school supplies from home to school and back again.  Before you purchase a new backpack for your child, take into consideration the following:

  • The backpack should be proportionate to the size of your child and not chosen to simply carry more items.
  • The adjustable, padded, shoulder straps should be at least 2" wide. The backpack should fit comfortably and not dig into the shoulders, allowing the arms to move freely. Backpacks with tight, narrow straps dig into the shoulders and can interfere with circulation and nerves which can contribute to tingling, numbness and weakness in the arms and hands.
  • The shoulder straps should be adjusted so that the bottom of the pack sits 2" above the waist.
  • The bottom of the backpack should rest in the contour of the lower back and be positioned evenly in the middle of the back and not allowed to sag toward the buttocks.
  • The waist belt sends the weight of the backpack down through the legs and it maintains the central position, keeping the backpack closer to the back.
  • Choose a backpack made of lightweight material so it won't increase weight to your child's load.
  • A padded backpack not only provides increased comfort but also protects your child from being poked by sharp edges or objects (pencils, rulers, corners of notebooks, etc.) inside the backpack.
  • Multiple compartments help distribute the weight more evenly.
  • Consider compression straps – on the sides or bottom of the backpack to help compress the contents of the backpack and stabilize the articles.
  • Consider reflective material– for visibility during the fall and winter months.

Tips for Parents

group of kids at school wearing backpacks
  • Encourage your child or teenager to tell you about pain or discomfort they may be experiencing.
  • If your child complains of consistent pain associated with carrying their backpack, instruments or sports equipment take your child to see your family physician.
  • Talk to your teachers about managing homework and the books required for the school year.
  • Ensure the school allows students to stop at their lockers throughout the day. Team up with other parents to encourage positive changes.
  • If your child has back pain that does not improve, consider buying or borrowing a second set of textbooks to keep at home.
  • Use your bathroom scale to weigh the backpack. A child who weighs 80 pounds shouldn't carry more than 8 to 12 pounds in their backpack.  Even less would be better!
  • Although packs on wheels (luggage bags) may present a healthier, alternative option for students who have to lug around really, heavy backpacks keep in mind they are very difficult to pull up the stairs and manoeuvre during inclement weather. Many schools do not allow packs on wheels because they pose a tripping hazard in the hallways, so check with your school before you make a purchase.
  • The most common symptom reported from backpack injury is rucksack palsy. When pressure is placed on the nerves in the shoulder area, it causes numbness and/or tingling in the hands, and in extreme cases, nerve damage.  
  • If the backpack seems too heavy, remove some of the books and have your child carry them in their arms to ease the weight.
  • Watch your children put on and take off their backpack to see if they struggle.
  • When and if possible, purchase books on CD-ROM or include curriculum on the school's website.

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