Back to School? Back to Back Pain. Is Your Student’s Backpack Too Heavy?

The smell of coffee wafts through the kitchen. You have a few spare minutes of calm before you need to wrangle the kiddos out of bed, stuff them into something resembling an outfit, and shoo them off to the bus stop with what you’ll later realize was your lunch instead of theirs. Guess we’re having Lunchables again.

In all the madness of back-to-school season, it’s easy to overlook a thing or two. But as you sit at the table wishing you’d brewed that pot of joe just a little bit stronger, we thought we’d share a pretty important (and often overlooked), back to school safety tip with you.

So give those bleary eyes a rub, stifle that yawn, and scroll down to keep reading.

Whoops… your other down.

That’s better.

It’s exhausting. We know. You’ve bought all the school supplies — so you think, until Kayden’s fourth grade teacher “graciously” informs you that you bought the wrong kind of glue stick in triplicate (trust us… it’s a thing) — which definitely cost way more than you thought they would. And now that you’ve driven hither and yon to acquire each of these items, you somehow need to Tetris them all into his backpack. 

Oh boy. 

Except… are you sure that’s the right backpack for him? You might think we’re yanking your chain, but it’s actually a legitimate cause for concern. An often cited statistic, always attributed to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, claims that an estimated 14,000 kiddos have to be treated for backpack-related injuries every year. If this sounds statistic sounds absurd, that’s because it definitely is. We saw this statistic repeated across dozens of different sources, but were unable to trace its origin back to any CPSC documentation. (Don’t think we didn’t try.) In actuality, the number of injuries to children caused by backpacks is fuzzy, if entirely unknown, with some sources claiming 5000, and another (the Illinois Board of Ed., also via the CPSC) claiming an oddly specific 7,277.

With that said, this isn’t a thinkpiece on properly sourced statistics. We like to provide our readers with information they can actually take to the bank. So, here’s the real tea on reality:  from what we could find, no long-term studies have been performed on the dangers of backpack misuse in children.

But… and this is a big but… throw a rock at a playground (please don’t actually do this) and you’re all but guaranteed to hit a student who will complain about their backpack being too heavy if asked. The operative words in that sentence? “If asked.” Heavy backpacks are one of those things that most students silently deal with. They don’t complain about it, because there’s never been an alternative. You have to schlep your books to class somehow. What’s more, how else are you supposed to get them home?

According to the Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons, the recommended weight of a students backpack is no more than 10-15% of their bodyweight. While that might be practicable for elementary-aged kids, anyone who’s ever toddled down their high school’s hallways like a bipedal turtle (so, everyone?) knows that this is the pipe dream to end all pipe dreams. Once you add up the binders, lunch sacks, notebooks, miscellanea, and half dozen multi-pound textbooks a student requires to properly do their schoolwork, you’re easily looking at upwards of 30 pounds — or the equivalent of your kid lugging the family Corgi to and from class every single day. 

That might sound like a rollicking good time for Fido, but for your child it’s anything but. Take a look at this infographic from The Huffington Post detailing what heavy backpacks are doing to your kids.

Infographic by Jan Diehm for The Huffington Post.

The picture painted there is not a pretty one. So what can you do as a parent? We turned to healthychildren.org, one of our favorite safety sources available, for the answers. Here’s what the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends:

It all starts with choosing the right backpack. Look for the following:

  • Wide, padded shoulder straps — Narrow straps can dig into shoulders. This can cause pain and restrict circulation.  
  • Two shoulder straps — Backpacks with one shoulder strap that runs across the body cannot distribute weight evenly.  
  • Padded back — A padded back protects against sharp edges on objects inside the pack and increases comfort.  
  • Waist strap — A waist strap can distribute the weight of a heavy load more evenly.  
  • Lightweight backpack — The backpack itself should not add much weight to the load.  
  • Rolling backpack — This type of backpack may be a good choice for students who must tote a heavy load. Remember that rolling backpacks still must be carried up stairs. They may be difficult to roll in the snow (not typically a problem in Southern California).

To prevent injuries when using a backpack, children are advised to do the following: 

  • Always use both shoulder straps. Slinging a backpack over one shoulder can strain muscles. Wearing a backpack on one shoulder may increase curvature of the spine.  
  • Tighten the straps so that the pack is close to the body. The straps should hold the pack two inches above the waist.  
  • Pack light. The backpack should never weigh more than 10 to 20 percent of the student’s total body weight.  
  • Organize the backpack to use all of its compartments. Pack heavier items closest to the center of the back.  
  • Stop often at school lockers, if possible. Do not carry all of the books needed for the day.  
  • Bend using both knees, when you bend down. Do not bend over at the waist when wearing or lifting a heavy backpack.
  • Learn back-strengthening exercises to build up the muscles used to carry a backpack.  

But wait, there’s more!  Here are a couple more ways that you can help as parents.

  • Encourage your child or teenager to tell you about pain or discomfort that may be caused by a heavy backpack. Do not ignore any back pain in a child or teenager. Ask your pediatrician for advice.  
  • Talk to the school about lightening the load. Be sure the school allows students to stop at their lockers throughout the day. Team up with other parents to encourage changes.  
  • Consider buying a second set of textbooks for your student to keep at home. (Or, better yet:  GO DIGITAL!)

Concerns about the weight of children’s backpacks are not new, but as workloads increase (as well as both literal and metaphorical pressures), it’s one of those things that we have to pay increased attention to. Unfortunately, studies have shown that the overwhelming majority of parents (96%) have never checked the weight of their child’s backpacks, and 34% had never checked the contents to see what was being carried. 

Back to school articles place enormous amounts of concern on bus safety, pedestrian safety, and bike safety, but as important as these topics are (and they are hugely important) not every student takes the bus, walks, or pedals their way to school. The one commonality all children share? Everyone carries a backpack.

Have a serious injury and need legal advice?
Contact Howard Blau.

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Check Out These References for Further Reading:

The Impact of Backpack Loads on School Children: A Critical Narrative Review.”  National Center for Biotechnology Information. Retrieved 17 August 2019.

Weighing School Backpacks.” The New York Times. Retrieved 17 August 2019.

Backpack Safety Tips.” Kars4Kids. Retrieved 17 August 2019.

Backpack Safety: It’s Time to Lighten the Load.” National Safety Council. Retrieved 17 August 2019.

6 Rules for School Safety.” Scholastic. Retrieved 17 August 2019.

Back to School Safety Tips.” NHTSA. Retrieved 17 August 2019.

2019-08-19T09:51:57-08:00August 19th, 2019|Child Safety, School Safety|0 Comments