How do you choose the right backpack for your child?

It’s tax-free weekend and that means it’s time to get the kids ready for school loaded up with supplies and books. When you send them out the door with everything they need, have you considered that it may be too much? A heavy backpack or one that is worn incorrectly can cause chronic neck, back, and shoulder pain. Before heading out to purchase a backpack, read these helpful tips.

“A child’s backpack shouldn’t weigh more than 15 percent of the child’s bodyweight,” says Mara Tache, M.D., a pediatrician at The Austin Diagnostic Clinic (ADC). “If the backpack is too heavy or worn incorrectly, it can cause posture problems or strained muscles.”

Children wearing backpacks walk away from cameraChoosing the right backpack

If you ask the child, choosing a backpack means deciding what color it should be or what cartoon character decorates it. But for parents, there are other things you should look for to make sure you’re buying your child a pack that can help prevent back injuries.

  • STRAPS – Select a backpack with well-padded shoulder straps to help protect the shoulders and neck. These straps should be adjusted so the pack fits snugly against your child’s back. A pack hanging loosely from the back can pull a child backward and strain muscles.
  • SIZE – Select a smaller backpack for your younger child. The backpack itself should be lightweight.
  • BELT – Consider a pack with a waist belt to help distribute the weight of the pack evenly.
  • WHEELS – Consider buying a pack on wheels, similar to the carry-on luggage used by airplane travelers. Caution: These carriers are not for everyone, as they are difficult to maneuver up and down curbs and stairs. Also note that some schools don’t allow them.

Wearing it the right way

About 40 million kids take a backpack to school in the U.S., and the average student is carrying too much weight. You can save your child aches and pains if you teach them to wear their pack correctly.

“It may be the fad, but a backpack should never be worn over just one shoulder,” explains Dr. Tache. “It should be worn on both shoulders and adjusted to fit snugly against the child’s back. The backpack shouldn’t hang more than a few inches below the child’s waist. If the pack has a waist strap, the strap should be fastened firmly across the child’s bellybutton.”

You can also teach your child to pack only what he or she really needs. If something can be left at school, encourage them to do so. When packing a backpack, the weight should be distributed evenly, starting with the heaviest items on the bottom to the lightest on top.

Sharing these tips with your child can make a measurable difference. In a study on the effect of backpack education on student behavior and health, nearly 8 out of 10 middle-school students who changed how they loaded and wore their backpacks reported less pain and strain in their backs, necks, and shoulders.

Preventing and treating backpack injuries

“The best way to prevent backpack injury is to watch your child for signs,” says Dr. Tache. “He or she shouldn’t be straining forward when carrying the pack. Also, listen for complaints or reports of discomfort that might be backpack related.”

If your child is complaining of back pain, you can try replacing the backpack to see if the pain gets better. Besides back and shoulder pain, watch for signs like tingling arms, stooped posture, and weakened muscles.

If your child’s symptoms don’t improve, you should schedule an appointment with your child’s doctor. He or she can recommend back-strengthening exercises and treat any injuries caused by backpack misuse.