Employee & Community Health

Backpacks 101

8/24/2017 by Dr. Nusheen Ameenuddin

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As parents and kids hit the stores for back-to-school shopping, "new backpack" often tops the list. But there's more to look for in a backpack than fun graphics or trendy colors. Keep these tips in mind to minimize stress and strain on your child's body: 

Backpack basics. Choose a backpack that is lightweight and has: 

  • Wide, padded shoulder straps. Narrow straps can dig into shoulders, causing pain and restricting circulation. 
  • Two shoulder straps. Single, cross-body straps can't distribute the weight evenly. 
  • Padded back. A padded back protects against sharp edges of objects inside the pack and increases comfort. 
  • Waist strap. A waist strap can distribute the weight of a heavy load more evenly. 

Bigger is not better. The upside of a big backpack is that there's lots of room for "stuff." The downside is there's lots of room for stuff, which can overload a child. We've all seen tiny kids bent forward under the weight of a too-large backpack. The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons says that ideally a filled backpack should not exceed 15-20% of a child's body weight. In addition to causing back and shoulder pain, a too-heavy backpack can put a child off balance, such as when going up or down stairs. 

Check the fit. Adjust shoulder straps and tighten the waist strap so the backpack lies close to the body and holds the pack two inches above the waist. 

Wear it correctly. Always use both shoulder straps, since slinging it over one shoulder can cause muscle strain. 

Organize. Use all the compartments to distribute weight and make things easier to find. Put heavier items, such as books and water bottles, close to the center of the child's back. 

Other good ideas. Kids should stop at their school locker often, if possible, so they don't have to carry all the books needed that day. When bending down, kids should use their knees, not bend at the waist. Consider a rolling backpack, if the school allows them, but be aware this could present a tripping hazard for your child or others. 

Parents, don't ignore your child or teen's complaints about back or shoulder pain, which may be caused by a too-heavy backpack or carrying it wrong. For questions about backpack safety, check out the American Academy of Pediatric's Healthy Children website or ask your pediatrician. 

Dr. Nusheen Ameenuddin is a pediatrician with Employee and Community Health's Division of Community Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine (CPAM). She has a strong interest in child advocacy and media effects on children. She serves as vice-chair of the national American Academy of Pediatric's (AAP) Council on Communications and Media and on the board of the Minnesota chapter of the AAP. She also holds a master's in Public Health an serves as director of the Pediatric Resident Continuity Clinic.