Watch That Backpack Load

Most children rely on backpacks to carry books and supplies to and from school and activities. But a backpack that’s too heavy or doesn’t fit right can cause harm.

Children can hurt themselves by using poor posture to carry a heavy bag. They may arch their back, bend forward, twist, or lean to one side. These positions can change the spine’s alignment so its discs can’t absorb shock as they should. It can injure muscles and joints in the back, neck, and shoulders. It can cause problems with posture. In rare cases, it may cause nerve damage.

Choosing the right backpack

Pick backpacks for your children that:

  • Are lightweight but strong

  • Have 2 wide, padded shoulder straps (not just 1 strap)

  • Have a padded back to protect against sharp objects inside the bag

  • Have a waist and chest strap to help keep the bag stable

  • Are the right size (they should not be wider than your child's torso or hang more than 4 inches below the waist)

Rolling backpacks

A rolling backpack can be useful if your child is unable to carry a backpack. But a rolling pack can be hard to carry upstairs. It may also be hard to roll over bumpy ground or in snow. The American Chiropractic Association recommends using rolling backpacks on a limited basis for students who are physically unable to carry a backpack. This is because it may clutter school hallways, resulting in dangerous trips and falls. Think about how your child will need to use the bag. In some cases, it may not be the best choice.

Wearing a backpack safely

Talk with your children about how to safely use a backpack. Help them adjust it. Teach them to:

  • Pack light. The backpack should be at a comfortable weight. Weigh it on a scale. When full, it shouldn’t be more than 5% to 10% of your child’s body weight.

  • Organize the backpack well. Place the heavy items low toward the center of the backpack.

  • Carry only what’s needed. Make sure your children know not to carry a whole day’s worth of books and supplies at once. Tell them to make trips to their locker during the day.

  • Use care when putting on and taking off their backpacks.  Children should not twist too much. When picking up a heavy backpack, bend with both knees—not at the waist.

  • Use both shoulder straps. This will help spread the weight and promote good posture. Tell your children not to sling both straps over 1 shoulder. This makes posture off-balance. 

  • Place the backpack evenly in the middle of the back. The backpack should sit about 2 inches above the waist. This will help prevent awkward postures.

  • Tighten and loosen the straps as needed. The straps should be snug while wearing the pack. This helps hold the pack firmly to the body. Tell your children to loosen the straps before removing the pack. This makes it easier to take off.

If your child has pain

Talk with your child about any discomfort from the backpack. Watch your child put on and take off the backpack. If your child has pain or numbness in the arm or legs from the bag, talk with the school about ways to lighten the load. Make sure the school allows trips to lockers as needed. If the pain continues, talk with your child’s healthcare provider.

Online Medical Reviewer: Rahul Banerjee MD
Online Medical Reviewer: Raymond Turley Jr PA-C
Online Medical Reviewer: Stacey Wojcik MBA BSN RN
Date Last Reviewed: 9/1/2023
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