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Back To School Backpack Safety

I wrote about this last year and it was important for me to touch this subject one more time. As our little ones are eager to be returning to school, getting BTS shopping done and finding the perfect backpack, just remember not to load up the backpack. I had an epiphany last year about these backpacks when I saw preschoolers tipping over. The one thing that struck me was some packs looked heavy and it got me thinking at this young age we need to be mindful of how heavy the backpacks are.

Backpacks nowadays come in our childs favorite characters, colors, fabrics, or rollers but most importantly it's a tiny way our child can express their own style. Some backpacks are simple, without pockets, others have multiple compartments that help our kiddos organize their pens, papers, lunch, etc. Backpacks are great because the strongest muscles in the body are in the back and the abdominal muscles help support the weight of the backpack.

When worn correctly, the weight in a backpack is evenly distributed across the body, so shoulder and neck injuries are less common. Even though backpacks are convenient it can strain muscles and joints and may cause back pain if they're too heavy or are used incorrectly. Some kids have backaches because they're lugging around their entire locker's worth of books, school supplies, and assorted personal items all day long. From my research doctors and physical therapists recommend that kids carry only 10% to 20% of their body weight in their packs. Here’s a little bit of biology to bring things into perspective. The spine is made of 33 bones called vertebrae and between the vertebrae are discs that act as natural shock absorbers.

When our kiddos are carrying a heavy backpack filled with books and it’s slung on one shoulder, the weight's force can pull a child backward. To compensate our child may bend forward at the hips or arch their back, which can cause the spine to compress unnaturally. The heavy weight might cause some kids to develop shoulder, neck, and back pain, ouch. Wearing the backpack incorrectly can actually lead to poor posture! Here’s another aspect which I would have never thought of, backpacks with tight, narrow straps can dig into the shoulders and interfere with circulation and the nerves. These types of straps can contribute to tingling, numbness, and weakness in the arms and hands.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that parents look for the following when choosing the right backpack:

  • a lightweight pack that doesn't add a lot of weight to your child's load (for example, even though leather packs look cool, they weigh more than traditional canvas backpacks)

  • two wide, padded shoulder straps; straps that are too narrow can dig into shoulders

  • a padded back, which not only provides increased comfort but also protects kids from being poked by sharp edges on objects (pencils, rulers, notebooks, etc.) inside the pack

  • a waist belt, which helps to distribute the weight more evenly across the body

  • multiple compartments, which can help distribute the weight more evenly”

Now I know what you’re thinking, I’ll just get my little one a backpack on wheels which would be great if they are carrying a lot however factor in how difficult it is to pull up stairs. Check with your school before buying a rolling pack; many schools don't allow them because they can pose a tripping hazard in the hallways.

To help kids prevent injury when using a backpack, lighten the load. Again doctors and physical therapists recommend that kids carry packs of no more than 10% to 20% of their body weight. If you don't know what that 10% to 20% feels like, use the bathroom scale like I did (for example, the backpack of a child who weighs 80 pounds shouldn't weigh more than 8 to 16 pounds).

Ask your child to use the backpack properly, explain why and how it needs to be worn. Be sure kids use both shoulder straps, have an open dialogue on why backpacks that are slung over the shoulder or across the chest or that only have one strap aren't as effective at distributing the weight as bags with two wide shoulder straps because it will strain their muscles. Also tighten the straps enough for the backpack to fit closely to the body. The pack should rest evenly in the middle of the back and not sag down to the buttocks.

Hope this helps and have a happy and safe school year!

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