Is Your Child's Backpack Too Heavy? Proper Spine Care for the Younger Generation

19 December 2018

Back pain isn't something only older adults need to worry about. Children can suffer from it too. The biggest contributor to child back pain? Your child's backpack weight.

While it's common to see kids carrying backpacks that are half (or more!) of their size, overloaded backpacks can lead to overloaded backs, necks and shoulders, not to mention long-term spine and posture problems. Here's what you need to know about child backpack weight, and how to prevent child back pain and improve spine health.

Backpacks and Back Pain

Backpacks have become of staple for schoolchildren everywhere and are a practical way to organize and carry school supplies. But children are piling in notebooks, textbooks, lunch boxes, water bottles, sports gear and more into their packs every day.

There is growing evidence that a child's backpack weight is linked to child back pain, especially when kids carry around an overloaded pack for long periods of time or wear their bag on one shoulder. According to a 2017 review of previously published studies, a child's backpack weight can cause excessive compression of the spine — especially the head and cervical spine — and musculoskeletal pain, which can affect a child's posture and long-term spine health. Thin, unpadded backpack straps can also dig into the shoulder, and can cause numbness or tingling in the arms and hands.

How Heavy Is Too Heavy?

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that backpacks should not weigh more than 10 to 20 percent of the child's total body weight. Some experts advise staying close to the lower end of the spectrum. So, if your child weighs 50 pounds, their backpack shouldn't weigh more than five pounds.

Yet, most parents may not be aware of how much their child's backpack weighs. To keep overstuffed bags in check, do regular spot checks to see if your child is carrying around too much weight, especially if they complain of head, neck, shoulder or back pain.

Suggest to your child that they leave their favorite toy, rock collection or heavy hardcover book at home if they don't need it for school.

Lighten the Load

Your child's backpack weight is only one factor to consider; how your child wears his or her backpack is also important. Here are some tips from the American Academy of Pediatrics to protect your child's growing spine and ward off child back pain:

  1. Buy a backpack that fits your child. Some companies offer different size backpacks depending on a child's stature. This way, your first grader won't be stuck lugging around a backpack made for a high school student.
  2. Consider the material. While you want a backpack that's durable, choose one made of lightweight material so that it doesn't add a lot of extra weight.
  3. Look for a backpack with wide, padded straps and a padded back. This can help relieve some of the pressure on your child's shoulders and neck and can also protect their back from pointy objects inside the bag. Waist and chest straps can also help distribute the weight.
  4. Wear the backpack on both shoulders. While wearing a backpack on one shoulder might be the trend, it can lead to uneven muscle strains whereas wearing it on both shoulders place the weight evenly across your body.
  5. Adjust the backpack. Tighten the straps so that the pack hugs your child's back and doesn't hang below your child's hips. Ideally, the back should be a few inches above their waist.
  6. Pack it properly. Place heavier items at the center and bottom of the pack.
  7. Remind your child that they don't have to carry everything in their backpack all the time! Swap out books or notebooks at a locker throughout the day.

Steer clear of rolling backpacks. While they seem like a good idea, the American Chiropractic Association doesn't recommend them for most kids except for those who physically cannot carry a backpack. Not only do kids still have to lug these heavy packs up and down stairs, they can cause a tripping hazard at school since they may not fit into lockers.

Don't forget to teach your kids good spine health habits, such as using two hands and bending their knees to pick up their backpack.

While your child may feel that they're strong enough to carry the weight of a heavy backpack, they shouldn't. Keeping your child's backpack weight in check can help ward off child back pain now and keep their spine healthy in the long run.