Nearly all school-aged children carry backpacks every day, hauling books, toys and sports equipment.1 And many children report pain when wearing a backpack, especially when carrying heavier loads.1,2,3 Students have also reported increased discomfort when carrying heavier loads2 and with increased time spent carrying a backpack.3,5 It’s not just discomfort that is at issue, carrying a heavier backpack can alter posture, decrease reaction times when walking and increase the risk of falls.4,5,6
Although experts don’t agree on a safe upper limit of weight that kids should carry in their backpacks,4 most researchers support a range of 10-15% of body weight as a reasonable target.3,4 Even young students carry heavy backpacks,7 which is a cause for concern because the ratio pack weight relative to the child’s weight is increased when compared with older, heavier students. Some grade one student’s backpacks weigh as much as 5.5kg (12 lbs).7 For the average first grade student that may be equivalent to about 24% of his/her body weight.
With this in mind, when you are out looking for school supplies, give careful consideration to your child’s backpack. While kids may have strong opinions about which backpack to buy (such as the pink one or the Batman one), as a parent there are some other important things to look for.
The backpack needs to fit the child from shoulders to waistline and be no wider than they are from shoulder to shoulder.8
Choose shoulder straps that are wide and padded to reduce pinching2 and that are spaced widely to help decrease the work of neck muscles.9
Packs with two larger compartments allow for more even weight distribution.2
A backpack with a padded back increases comfort.2
Wear it right:
Adjust the shoulder straps so that the bottom edge of the pack sits at or just above the waistline.8
Use the waist strap to distribute some of the load from the shoulders to the hips.2
Use both shoulder straps; slinging the backpack over one shoulder leads to discomfort and poor posture.3
Put the heaviest things closest to the body when packing your backpack.8
Lighten the load:
Only carry what you must.8 Leave things at home or at school whenever possible. (Do they really need that shoebox full of Pokemon cards with them?)
Choose the lightest possible backpack (that fits) when you are shopping.8
Consider using rolling bags.4
If your child has access to a locker, use it and encourage him/her to only carry what they must from one class to the next.
Check with your child to make sure that they are comfortable carrying their backpack and help them to adjust their pack and what they are carrying.
Contact a physiotherapist or other health-care professional if you have questions or need help choosing or fitting a backpack. If you or your child has experienced injury or pain from an over-filled or ill-fitting back pack, click here to find a physiotherapist in your area.
Talbott NR, Bhattacharya A, Davis KG, Shukla R, Levin L. School backpacks: It’s more than just a weight problem. Work: A Journal of Prevention, Assessment and Rehabilitation. 2009; 34(4): 481-94.
Golriz S, Walker B. Can load carriage system weight, design and placement affect pain and discomfort? A systematic review. Journal of Back and Musculoskeletal Rehabilitation 2011; 24: 1-16.
Dockrell S, Simms C, Blake C. Schoolbag weight limit: Can it be defined? Journal of School Health. 2013; 83(5): 368-377.
Bryant BP, Bryant JB. Relative weights of the backpacks of elementary-aged children. The Journal of School Nursing. 2014; 30(1): 19-23.
Kistner F, Fiebert I, Roach K. Effect of backpack load carriage on cervical posture in primary school children. Work: A Journal of Prevention, Assessment and Rehabilitation. 2012; 41(1): 99-108.
Mo SW, Xu DQ, Li JX, Liu M. Effect of backpack load on the head, cervical spine and shoulder postures in children during gait termination. Ergonomics. 2013; 56(12): 1908-1916.
Lasota A. Schoolbag weight carriage by primary school pupils. Work. 2014; 48: 21-26.
Chullino M. Children and backpack safety. The South Carolina Nurse. 2013; November-December: 8.
Kim MH, Yoo, WG. Effect of the spacing of backpack shoulder straps on cervical muscle activity, acromion and scapular position, and upper trapezius pain. Journal of Physical Therapy Science. 2013; 25: 685-686.