7 Tips for a Lighter, Safer School Backpack

Pack less than 15 percent of body weight
girl carrying heavy backpack

If the contents of your child’s school backpack could fill a small European car, it’s time to think about lightening the load. Backpacks that are too heavy for a child not only cause discomfort but may lead to physical problems.

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What potential problems could a heavy backpack cause?

Pediatrician Ellen Rome, MD, MPH, says children should not carry more than 10 to 15% of their body weight in their backpacks. For instance, 11 pounds is about the limit for a third grader who weighs in at 75 pounds.

More than that could cause back problems and strain around the neck and shoulders. A too-heavy pack may also result in apophysitis, an inflammation of growth cartilage that can occasionally impact the shoulder.

Over time, posture may also be affected if children are leaning either too far forward or backward due to the pack’s heaviness or to an unequal distribution of weight.

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7 tips for a safer backpack

“You can physically put the backpack on the scale and figure out if it’s more than 10-15 percent of the kid’s body weight,” says Dr. Rome. “How can you minimize what the kid is lugging around every day?”

One tip Dr. Rome recommends is to talk to your kids and figure out which books they really need to take home and what they can leave at school.

Other tips for a safer backpack:

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  • Match the backpack to the child. Buy a backpack that is the appropriate size for your child and that have two shoulder straps for better balance. The pack should sit 2 inches above the hips.
  • Get packs with wide straps and padded backs. Backpacks with tight, narrow straps that dig into the shoulders can interfere with nerves and circulation, which can lead to tingling, numbness and weakness in the arms and hands.
  • Distribute weight evenly. To better distribute the weight, make sure the child uses both straps—and the waist strap, if available. Don’t use backpacks with one strap even though your child may think it looks cooler; this can lead to back and shoulder problems down the road.
  • Strategically situate the contents. Put larger, heavier textbooks nearer the child’s body so when they’re running and swinging around, the centrifugal force of the backpack doesn’t cause loss of balance and a fall.
  • Make the solution fun.  “Another creative solution is to get a rolling backpack,” says Dr. Rome. “Make it a style-statement. Let them put as many stickers or whatever else on to make them feel special carrying it.”
  • Tell kids to speak up if they’re hurting.  Make sure your kids let you know if they’re experiencing back pain, tingling or numbness. Explain that they could cause lasting physical damage if they carry a backpack that’s too heavy.

Dr. Rome adds that if you see your child showing discomfort putting on or taking off a backpack, don’t ignore it — it’s another sign that the backpack is too heavy or the weight is unevenly distributed.

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