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Here's What Happens When a Child's Backpack Is Too Heavy

Mom.com logo Mom.com 6/9/2019 Marsha Takeda-Morrison
a little girl walking down the street: heavy-backpack-featured © Provided by RockYou Media(mom.me; purpleclover.com) heavy-backpack-featured

True story: Once when I was helping my daughter clean out her backpack, I found one of my dinner plates in there, buried underneath her books, papers, and a wad of fused-together gummy bears. Her excuse was that she was eating a sandwich in the car on the way to school one morning, and forgot to leave the plate behind. I was glad to have my plate back, and just relieved that I didn’t find the rest of that sandwich in the bottom of her backpack.

But here’s the surprising part of the story: The dinner plate wasn’t the most shocking thing about our backpack cleanout — it was the immense weight of the bag. The backpack was so heavy with books, I felt as if I should have worn a lifting belt just to heave it onto the table.

According to my daughter, this was pretty much the norm among her classmates. No one had time to race to their lockers — which could sometimes be on the other side of campus — between periods, so they were forced to carry all of their textbooks from class to class. Everyone complained about how much their backs hurt. These were middle-schoolers, trading ailment stories like a bunch of senior citizens at their weekly bridge game.

I know I wasn’t the first parent to be alarmed about the weight my kid was lugging around. “My teenage boys' backpacks are ridiculous,” Los Angeles mom Yvonne Condes told Mom.com. “Some days they're so heavy that I can't pick them up. I really do worry about what carrying all that weight is doing to their backs.”

Parents aren’t the only ones worried about our kids (literally) doing the heavy lifting. Experts are concerned with what those backpacks are doing to our children’s bodies in the long term. Ember DeStefani, a nurse practitioner at Family Health Centers at NYU Langone in New York, said all of that extra weight can cause pain and damage that extends beyond their backs.

“A too-heavy backpack can lead to neck, shoulder, and back pain,” she told Mom.com. While DeStefani points out that a heavy backpack cannot cause scoliosis, she said the extra weight can have adverse effects on a child’s growing body. “I still would not recommend applying large amounts of pressure on the spine during a time of musculoskeletal development and growth,” she said.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, backpacks should never weigh more than 10% to 20% of your child's body weight. That means an 11-year-old of average weight — 80 pounds — should be carrying a backpack that weighs no more than 8-16 pounds.

It's an issue in other countries, too. In India, the government banned homework for children in grades one and two because they were concerned with the heavy school bags they were bringing home. This came after a 2016 survey that showed 88% of 7-to-13-year-olds in that country were carrying backpacks nearly half their body weight, and that the extra load was impacting a child's growing skeleton and harming their posture.

“Sometimes these children develop a posture which can take two years to correct,” Dr. Shreedhar Archik, an orthopedic surgeon in Mumbai told NPR. “We have to give them exercise to correct posture."

Besides the weight, the way a backpack is carried can often be the culprit. They’re meant to be worn with both straps engaged to distribute the weight evenly, but most kids sling them over one shoulder. Dr. Rolen Higashida, a chiropractor in Los Angeles, cautions against this. “If they carry a pack just on one side, it can cause even more problems,” he told Mom.com. “It would create muscle imbalance. If carried long enough this way, it could cause posture problems. Make sure that you carry backpack properly — over both shoulders and with the bottom of the pack not lower than your waistline.”

Experts agree that the over-one-shoulder method is one of the most detrimental aspects of a heavy backpack. “Super heavy backpacks can cause pain for kids, and when slung over one shoulder over a period of weeks to months, the backpack can also eventually lead to overdevelopment of muscles on one side,” cautioned pediatrician Dr. Cara Natterson, who is also a New York Times bestselling author and founder of Worry Proof Consulting.

Another important factor to consider: Image can be everything with school-aged kids, who will often put style ahead of safety or comfort. “An option is to have roller bags, but most kids tell me that isn't cool,” Higashida said.

And rolling backpacks — while a seemingly a logical solution and recommended by all the experts we spoke with — are not always practical. “This wouldn’t be feasible at my school,” DeStefani said. “Classrooms are on three floors, and students take the stairs. The nearest train stop is a half-mile away from the school, and rolling the bag on a snow-covered street would be difficult.”

DeStefani recognizes the image issue, and tries to encourage students to still be smart when choosing and carrying their packs. “Many of my patients are concerned about designer brands and personal style, rather than ergonomics,” she said. “I encourage my patients to get backpacks with wide, padded shoulder straps and a waist strap.”

Ultimately, if you feel as though that behemoth backpack is causing damage to your child’s back, have a conversation with your pediatrician for advice, and try to work out a solution with your child, their teacher, and their school. It also doesn’t hurt to clean that pack out every once in a while. Unnecessary papers, school supplies — and dinner plates — can cause a lot of extra weight.

Slideshow: 17 things school nurses wish you knew (Provided by Best Life) 

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