Health Break | Published October 1, 2007 | Written by Laura Mosier

Fitting Your Child's Backpack

School is back in session, and our children are shuttling back and forth with homework, lunches, musical instruments and sports equipment in tow. Many children carry their needed items in their backpack. Backpacks are wonderful, but if misfit, overloaded, or worn incorrectly they may cause undue stress on a childs back and shoulders. This stress can lead to back, neck or shoulder pain, as well as tingling and numbness in the arms and hands. Children do not always complain of these symptoms, but their actions may indicate they are having problems. They may struggle to lift their pack onto their back or bend over at the waist when wearing their backpack. These are both signs that their backpack is too heavy. To prevent discomfort or injury from backpacks, there are three steps to follow:

  1. purchase a good fitting backpack

  2. load the backpack correctly and

  3. wear the backpack properly

The first step is purchasing a backpack that fits correctly. There are four basic features to look at when purchasing a backpack: straps, back, width and length. The first features to look for are a padded back and two padded straps that are at least two inches wide. Wide straps distribute the weight evenly over the shoulders and the padded back prevents items inside from digging into the childs back. Now have your child try it on. The width of the pack needs to be adequate for the necessary items, but not wider than the childs back, if possible. Some children are so small that this is unavoidable. Next, look at the length and make sure the bottom of the backpack is no lower than four inches below the childs waistline (at the belly button level). Beyond these basic features, some packs have a chest strap that insures the shoulder straps stay in the correct location. Another feature that you may find on the pack is a waist belt, which helps distribute the weight of the pack more evenly. Both of these features are helpful, but not mandatory for a good fit.

Once you have a properly fit backpack, it is time to make sure your child knows how to load it correctly. The heaviest items should be loaded in the back of the pack (nearest the childs back). Make use of the various compartments of the pack to place awkwardly shaped items away from the body. Once the pack is loaded, head to the scale and weigh your child and loaded pack separately. Most professionals recommend children carry a backpack that weighs no more than ten to fifteen percent of the childs weight. For example, a 100-pound child should not carry more than fifteen pounds in their backpack, and ideally the weight should be closer to the ten-pound range. If they have extra books beyond this weight limit, they can carry one or two in their arms.

With the backpack loaded, it is time to make sure it is worn properly. When your child first wears their pack, adjust the straps so the pack is in contact with your childs back. Emphasize wearing both straps, as use of only one strap will cause unnecessary strain on both the shoulder and the back. In addition, remind your child to zip their backpack when wearing it. When unzipped, the contents can shift backward causing unnecessary stress on the back.

Following these recommendations for backpack safety can help prevent excessive stress on your childs body. However, if they experience any symptoms of pain or numbness, consult a doctor.

Laura Mosier is an Occupational Therapist in the Rehab Services Department at Mount Nittany Medical Center.