Is Your Child's Backpack Hurting Them?

sore shoulder

Backpacks are handy and incredibly sensible way to carry books and papers from home to school and back again, but the key is they must be used properly, to protect our kids’ posture and back from strain.

Things to look for in a backpack:

When choosing a backpack, think about the weight distribution across the shoulders. The shoulder straps should be wide and padded to provide comfort. Narrow straps can dig into shoulders, causing pain and hindering circulation of blood if too tight.

Speaking of straps, I always recommend two adjustable shoulder straps. That is the most beneficial way to have equal weight distribution and if possible, look for a waist strap which helps disperse the heavy load more evenly across the upper torso. The across the body messenger-style bags may appear stylish but can wreck havoc on your child’s posture and unequally distribute weight.

A padded back will also help kids be more comfortable and prevent sharp corners of heavy textbooks or school supplies from causing chafing or discomfort across the back. I also like backpacks with multiple compartments that not only allow kids to stay organized but also help to distribute the weight across the backpack rather than all toward the front pockets. In general, it’s better to pack heavier items closest to the center of the back to allow safest distribution of weight. Make sure that the “added perks” or any particular bookbag do not add any extra weight in themselves. The bookbag itself should be overall lightweight.

Dangers of Carrying a Heavy Bag Daily:

Kids are prone to suffering from back pain not just from musculoskeletal injuries while playing sports, but even poor posture while siting and long class periods of inactivity. Add to that the possibility of wearing a very heavy backpack, and you can see why many school age children and teenagers complain of shoulder and back pain.

Many kids wear their backpacks over one shoulder; it’s easier to pick up and put down this way, but very often, they are causing muscular imbalances which greatly affect posture and increase curvature of the spine. They may lean to one side to offset the extra weight and develop upper and lower back pain as well as neck strain. Younger children and teenage females are especially prone to these issues as most have smaller frames and carry loads to heavy for their body weight.

As a pediatrician, I recommend that kids carry no more than 10% to 15% of their body weight in their packs, but the reality is many carry a lot more than that. Sometimes, children prefer to wear their backpack low across their body, so that the pack itself is hanging close to their lower back or glutes, putting strain on the low back and hips. When a heavy backpack is incorrectly worn, the weight's force can pull a child backward and so to compensate, many children bend slightly bend forward back which can also lead to shoulder, neck, and back pain. The safest and most effective way to wear the straps is to tighten them close to the body. The straps should hold the pack 1-3 inches above the waist. Again, remember to make sure the straps are padded and wide. If too narrow or tight, they can lead to tingling, numbness, and weakness in the arms and hands by restricting circulation. Usually, these are all temporary but still uncomfortable and make cause your child to alleviate pain by switching shoulders which only worsens the problem, as mentioned above.

As a pediatrician, I realize buying the perfect backpack will not prevent backpain if we don’t teach our children safe and effective habits.

Other tips:

  1. Encourage your child to bend using both knees to pick up their back pack and to consider using their locker or desk often throughout the day instead of carrying the entire day’s worth of books in the backpack.
  2. Make sure your kids don’t tote unnecessary items like laptops and video games that can add extra pounds.
  3. Consider purchasing e-books in addition to hard copy textbooks so the books are available at home without the need to haul them back and forth from school to home

In general, I recommend testing all backpacks for durability, construction quality, comfort, convenience features, and of course, safety. Of note, the AAP (American Academy of Pediatrics) makes a point regarding the roller backpacks; they are convenient for a portion of the child population that can not bear the weight on their back, but too many roller backpacks in a crowded school increase the incidence and risk of tripping and falls.

I hope this helps! It might also be a good idea to wear or “test out” your child’s backpack yourself once a week to make sure he or she isn’t carrying too heavy of a haul. They may not tell you, but if it feels too heavy to you, it’s probably too heavy for them!

* All information subject to change. Images may contain models. Individual results are not guaranteed and may vary.