Backpacks Can Be a Real Pain For Kids—Here’s How To Lighten the Load

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Despite evidence that carrying heavy backpacks can cause musculoskeletal disorders, back pain, and posture issues in kids, overloaded backpacks are still the norm across much of the world. In India, the government even outlawed homework for first and second grades, and made rules about how heavy students’ bags could be. Nevertheless, NPR reported this month that the new rules aren’t working, and students are still suffering under the weight of backpacks that are dangerously heavy. 

Here in the U.S., the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission reports that at least 14,000 children are treated for backpack-related injuries every year. That might explain why the topic gets such heavy rotation in the news during back-to-school time every year.

The American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA) recommends that backpacks weigh no more than 10 percent of a student’s body weight. They offer the following suggestions for lightening your child’s load.

How to make sure your child’s backpack is safe:

  • Ensure the backpack is the correct size for your child.
  • The backpack should extend from about 2 inches below the shoulder blades to waist level, or slightly above the waist.
  • Use backpacks with well-padded shoulder straps (or purchase pads made specifically for the purpose). They should use both straps so the weight is balanced.
  • When packing the backpack, distribute weight evenly. Put the heaviest items nearest to the child’s back. Distribute other items so that the child can easily stand up straight.
  • Encourage your child to wear the hip belt if the backpack has one; it improves balance and relieves some of the pressure from neck and shoulder muscles.
  • Measure the pack and make sure it’s under 10% of your child’s total weight. If it’s over the limit, remove items that aren’t completely necessary.
  • If the backpack is still too heavy, consider a book bag on wheels.

“Practicing safe carrying techniques such as only carrying necessary items to and from school, or filling an empty water bottle at school rather than carrying a heavier filled one, can make a difference,” Karen Jacobs, clinical professor of occupational therapy at Boston University, tells AOTA. “The 10 percent rule is a good one to follow, but the reality is that if it feels too heavy, it probably is.”

Robyn is Editor-in-Chief at ParentsTogether and is co-author of several NYTimes bestselling anthologies. She lives in southern Michigan with her husband and five children.