7 Tips for a Lighter, Safer School Backpack

Pack less to prevent problems down the road
child dragging heavy backpack

If you’re like most parents, you probably don’t even think about your kids’ backpack except to make sure they have what they need in it.

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But you may need to give it another thought. Because how much your child’s backpack is stuffed with is just as important as what’s inside it. If the contents could fill a small European car, it’s time to think about lightening the load. And there are good reasons why. 

According to pediatrician Ellen Rome, MD, MPH, backpacks that are too heavy for a child not only cause discomfort, but a too-heavy pack can also result in a variety of health problems down the road. Especially after they’ve carried too much weight left unchecked over the course of several years.

How heavy should my child’s backpack be?

Dr. Rome recommends 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 an average third grader who weighs in at 75 pounds.

What problems can a heavy backpack cause?

“Any more than that could cause back problems and strain around the neck and shoulders,” she says. “Carrying heavy backpacks can also result in apophysitis, which is an inflammation of growth cartilage that can occasionally impact the shoulder.”

Over time your child’s posture can also be affected if they lean either too far forward or backward to compensate for the pack’s heaviness, or as a reaction to an unequal distribution of weight in the backpack.

New technology makes a lighter load

There’s better news lately about the weight your child carries each day. Many kids these days are not required to carry multiple heavy textbooks the way kids in previous generations had to. That big stack of extra large textbooks is often now replaced with a small tablet or laptop computer. 

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Both are also being made lighter and account for much less weight in your child’s pack. The average weight of newer 2019 tablets generally weigh only about .5 lb to 1 lb, and a computer might weigh about as much as one heavy textbook. 

“These advances in tech are going a long way in helping kids keep their packs much more carryable,” Dr. Rome says.

Dr. Rome still advises though that technology may not replace every book your child may have to carry. “Parents should still do a check-in into their child’s bag every so often,” she says.

She also offers the following tips to keep their pack lighter and safer.

Tips for a safe school backpack

To minimize what your kid is lugging around every day, start with your bathroom scale.

“You can physically put the backpack on the scale and figure out if it’s more than 10% to 15% of your kid’s body weight,” Dr. Rome suggests. 

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Here’s a formula to use to find out how close to 10% of your child’s weight their backpack is:

  • Weigh your child (ideally backwards on the scale, so they do not obsess about weight/body/numbers). 
  • Multiply your child’s weight by .10. That’s how you find out what your child’s backpack should weigh if you want them to carry only 10% of their body weight. 
  • Then, weigh the backpack alone on the scale to see what it weighs, and see if it’s close to the 10%. If it’s 10% of your child’s weight, you’re in a good range. If it’s more, think about adjusting the contents of the pack accordingly.

To find out the very maximum your child should be carrying (remember that 15% of their body weight is really the most they should walk around with) use the same formula above, but multiply your child’s weight by .15 instead. If the backpack is at this weight or higher, you’ll need to take steps to reduce what they pack.

Do the following to get the pack to a safer weight:

  1. Learn what they can leave at home. Figure out which books they really need at school that day.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.”
  7. 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 it’s too heavy or the weight is unevenly distributed.

“Correcting these problems early on will go a along way to prevent problems in their future,” she says. 

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