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How to protect your kid's back from too-heavy backpacks

Lifehacker Australia logo Lifehacker Australia 12/05/2019 Michelle Woo

a group of people standing in the snow: Photo: Antenna, Getty Images © Photo: Antenna, Getty Images Photo: Antenna, Getty Images After taking the obligatory front-door photo on my kid’s first day of kindergarten, I noticed that her backpack looked a little droopy. 

“Maggie, does your backpack hurt you?” I asked.

“Only when I wear it,” she said.

I opened the backpack, rearranged some of the contents, and detached the lunch bag stuffed with a bulky bento box and full thermos. That made it much more comfortable.

With kids heading back to school, make sure their backpacks aren’t wrecking their backs. (I should have checked my daughter’s earlier.) Packs that are too heavy, fitted incorrectly or weighted unevenly can lead to pain or poor posture that can persist later in life. Here are some tips to help protect them.

When selecting a backpack, these are some things to look for:

  • Two wide, padded, adjustable shoulder straps. Skinny straps can dig into your kid’s shoulders, restricting their circulation. Avoid cross-body sling packs — those don’t distribute weight evenly. And make sure your kid actually wears both straps — the one-strap look seen in Fast Times at Ridgemont High (and every other ‘80s teen flick) isn’t cool anymore anyway.

  • Lots of compartments. That way, you can shuffle things around to make the backpack more comfortable. Place the heaviest items closest to your child’s body and make sure anything pointy or awkwardly shaped isn’t digging into their back.

  • Lightweight materials. Leather (and faux leather) might look nice, but it weighs much more than canvas or nylon.

  • A waist belt and sternum strap. These help distribute the weight more evenly. If your child’s backpack doesn’t have a sternum strap, you can add one cheaply.

  • A proper fit. Look for a pack that’s the approximate size of your child — it should sit just below your child’s shoulder blades, be no wider than their back and not hang lower than the waist.

Lighten the load

The American Academy of Paediatrics recommends that children carry no more than 10 per cent to 20 per cent of their body weight in their backpack. (Though many medical professionals believe 15 per cent should be the absolute max.) That means my tiny kindergartener should only be lugging four pounds or so. If you unsure whether your kid’s backpack is too heavy, stick all of the usual contents inside and plop it onto your bathroom scale.

Look out for signs of a too-heavy backpack

According to Pozarnsky, symptoms include kids “grunting” when they pick up their packs, leaning forward as they stand, and complaining of numb arms and hands.

Consider a rolling backpack

The AAP recommends rolling backpacks as a way to avoid added shoulder strain. Just remember that kids must still transport these bags up curbs and stairs (and over snow in some areas), so they should be easy enough to carry if needed.

Avoid attaching a lunch box to the backpack

Many backpacks and lunch bags are now sold as sets, and you can attach the two items together with a strap. It sounds convenient, but a heavy lunch bag dangling off a backpack can make for a clunky setup. It’s usually better for your kid to keep the lunch bag inside the pack or carry it separately.

Do weekly checks

It’s easy for kids to accumulate PTA flyers, art projects, school supplies, extra water bottles and half-eaten snacks, so make sure you’re constantly helping get rid of dead weight.

If it seems like your child is always carrying around piles of textbooks, talk to their teacher about various options, including using school lockers and getting digital copies of the texts to read at home.

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