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What’s the safest way to wear a backpack?
Q: My children, ages 8 and 12, will be returning to school soon, and I’m getting ready to buy them new backpacks. I remember hearing on the news that backpacks can be dangerous for children. What do we need to know about them?
A: It’s important to pay attention to your children’s backpacks. They spend a lot of time lifting and carrying loaded packs that commonly weigh between 10 and 20 pounds. When they are too heavy or worn incorrectly, they can injure children’s necks, backs and shoulders, damage their posture and cause significant pain. Here are some basic guidelines for backpack safety from the American Academy of Pediatrics:

  1. Choose a backpack with the following safety features:

    • Two shoulder straps: Two straps distribute the weight more evenly across the shoulders than one strap does across the chest. Look for wide, padded shoulder straps. Narrow straps dig into the shoulders and can reduce circulation to the arms.
    • Padded back: Padding provides extra comfort and protects the back from sharp objects in the backpack.

    Consider the following:

    • A waist strap to help bear the load on the waist and hips.
    • A rolling backpack for children that have to carry large loads.

  2. Instruct your children in backpack safety:

    • Pack as light as possible. The backpack should weigh no more than 10 to 20 percent of a child’s weight (i.e., for a 100-pound child, the backpack should weigh no more than 20 pounds). Encourage your children to stop at their lockers frequently to drop off and pick up books, so they don’t carry them the whole day.
    • Always use both shoulder straps. Many children sling the backpack over one shoulder, but this can strain back muscles and deform posture. Make sure the straps are tightened over both shoulders and the pack is held close to the body, above the waist.
    • Bend at the knees when picking up the pack or bending over while wearing it. Bending at the waist can strain the back.

  3. Talk with the school about lightening the load of textbooks:

    • Discuss the issue with other parents to see whether they are also concerned about it. Talk with your children’s teachers and the Parent-Teacher Association about having two copies of textbooks—one that stays at school and another that stays at home—so children don’t have to carry them between school and home each day.
    • If your children live in two different houses, consider borrowing or buying copies of the textbooks for each home.
Encourage your children to tell you if they are having back pain. If so, be sure to consult your doctor.
Karen Sokal-Gutierrez M.D., M.P.H. Pediatrician