Bad Back to School


Placing too much weight on a child’s back and shoulders – literally – could be putting your son or daughter at risk

By Bev Bennett

CTW Features

Imagine having two ten-pound bags of flour strapped to your back all day. Then picture yourself a twelve-year old, barely hitting ninety pounds on the scale.  Those weights could take a toll on the back, neck and shoulders leaving the person fatigued and cramped at the end of the day.

Now try lifting your child’s backpack.  If he’s typical, he could be toting up to twenty pounds in books, accessories, bottled water, a bag lunch, and a cell phone.

No wonder health experts are concerned with the weight your child is carrying.  (Kids, if you’re reading this, don’t count on your pediatrician giving you a pass from homework. It’s not going to happen.).

Your child can carry the supplies he needs to succeed in school without discomfort.  The type of backpack you buy, how your child fills it, and how he wears it are just as important to back health as the pounds he has to carry, say health experts.

When buying a backpack, choose fit over style, says Karen Jacobs, Ed.D, former president of the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA).  “Children are drawn to color and popular heroes. You want the best design,” says Jacobs.

If by some miracle your child hasn’t destroyed his backpack after a few years, he still needs a new one that accommodates his growth, according to Jacobs, Boston.

For good fit, the bottom of the pack shouldn’t rest more than four inches below your child’s waistline, according to the AOTA, Bethesda, MD.

Check for heft as well by loading the backpack with books, while you’re in the store.  The filled backpack shouldn’t weigh more than 10 to 20 percent of your child’s total body weight, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.

At home, you can discourage excess weight by getting young children to leave their toys at home and telling teens to opt for the school water fountain instead of bottled water, Jacobs says.

Packing is also important to back health.  Place the backpack on the table and pack back to front, not bottom to top. The heaviest item should be closest to the back, with lighter items outward.  Don’t overload, says Jacobs.

Lifting and carrying a full pack also requires consideration.  Don’t bend over at the waist with a heavy backpack.  Instead bend from the knees, says Sandra Schefkind, pediatric coordinator with AOTA

And as cool as your child thinks it looks, flinging a backpack over one shoulder isn’t healthful, according to Schefkind.  Instead use both straps so weight is even across the back.

Backpack-buying Tips

The American Academy of Pediatrics and other health organizations offer these tips for buying backpacks:

• Look for a backpack that has wide, padded shoulder straps that don’t dig into the shoulders.  Two-inch wide straps are preferable, according to Karen Jacobs, on the Boston University faculty.

• Choose models with two shoulder straps to distribute weight evenly.

• The part of the pack that faces your child’s back should be padded for comfort and protection.  Jacobs recommends a hip strap with a little thickness.

• Side pockets for carrying supplies also help balance weight as long as your child fills both pockets evenly.

• The backpack itself should be light so it doesn’t add to the load.