The right back pack for your child

By David Pettebone
Info Guru,

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child with back pack
Children are particularly susceptible to orthopedic injuries from wearing backpacks incorrectly
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From preschool through college and beyond, a backpack is a standard part of back to school gear. They come in every shape, size and color, from a tiny Care Bears bag for a 4 year old to packs for preteen and teens that are more about fashion than function. Two strap, one strap, messenger name it, it's out there slung across a shoulder, shoved under a desk or serving as a makeshift pillow for a quick nap on the quad.

The one thing they all seem to have in common is that they're heavy. Sometime really heavy. As much as 50% of the child's body weight.

With all that weight, are backpacks safe? Is there a way to make them better for our kids?

Backpack injuries

According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, overloaded backpacks were the cause of more than 21,000 injuries treated at hospital emergency rooms, doctor's offices, and clinics. Injuries ranged from contusions, strains, sprains to fractures of the back and shoulders. A 2003 study using MRI testing revealed that overloaded backpacks altered the fluid content of the discs in the spine, making the wearer a prime candidate for disorders such as herniated disc and osteoarthritis later in life.

The National Association of School Nurses has stated that the improper use of backpacks is not healthy and can cause injury to any individual, not only children.

Children are particularly susceptible to orthopedic injuries from wearing backpacks because their bodies are still growing and developing. And wearing a backpack that weighs more than 15-20% of one's body weight can contribute to back pain and other disorders throughout life. Follow these simple guidelines to protect your child's back.

Back pack features

The backpack itself has features that can help or harm the child. First, the size should be proportional to the size of the child. The height of the backpack should be no more than three quarters of the length between the child's shoulder blades and waist. If the pack is larger than that, is too large for the child.

In addition, all backpacks are not created equal. Some have far better padding than others. You also cannot assume that the more you pay for the backpack, the safer your child will be.

Look for packs that have padded shoulder straps to prevent pinching nerves around the shoulder and neck area. You can also find packs that have a lumbar pad to buffer the lower part of the back from the hard edge of books and other contents of the backpack.

Opt for a waist strap if available. The child can use that strap to stabilize the load and prevent injuries that occur when the load swings wildly - occasionally taking the child over with it.

Many schools allow packs with wheels. If your child's school does allow them, invest in a wheel pack and encourage them to use the wheels whenver possible. Be sure to use a pack with straps to allow you child to carry the bag across muddy areas, puddles or up and down stairs.

If your child is worried about looking cool this school year and doesn't want to be the kid with the weird bag, there are plenty of cool back packs that will keep your child in style as well as provide the support needed to keep him/her safe.

(If your school don't allowed wheeled packs, meet with the principal and schook board members to encourage a change in this policy.)

Watch the weight

Backpack Safety America™ recommends that no more than 15 percent of the child's body weight be carried in a backpack. That means that a child weighing 85 pounds should carry no more than 12 pounds in that backpack. Another clear indicator: if the child must lean forward to handle the load of that backpack, it's too heavy. Check the backpack regularly to help lighten the load for your child.

Carry it right

A quick look around any school yard will show you backpacks dangling by one shoulder strap, hanging so low that they rest on the child's bottom, pulling shoulders and spine far from their natural and healthy upright posture. Choose a backpack with two straps, then insist that your child use both.

The problems of overweight and oversized backpacks are magnified when students carry their backpacks with one strap and use only one shoulder to support the weight, thereby directing the entire weight to one side of the body. This may cause the bearer to bend forward under the excess weight, and it can subject them to muscle spasms, headaches, spinal discomfort, and the aggravation of pre-existing spinal conditions such as scoliosis.

A summary for selecting the right backpack and its safe use:
  • Match the size of the backpack to the size of the student - make sure it is not too long or too short.
  • Select a lightweight style that has two wide, padded shoulders, a waist strap, and a padded back.
  • Position the backpack to rest evenly in the middle of the back.
  • Use both shoulder straps.
  • Teach your child to bend at the knees and use his/her legs to lift the backpack, one shoulder strap at a time.
  • Tighten the straps so that the backpack is close to the body.
  • Distribute the weight of objects evenly within the backpack, and do not carry a weight greater than 15% of body weight.
  • Utilize all compartments and pack the heaviest objects close to the back with the center of gravity near the pelvis.
  • Lighten the load whenever possible.

When shopping, for the right backpack for your child, take your child's measurements with you — or better yet, take your child! That way you can be assured of getting a backpack that fits your child's build. If you shop online, check

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