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Is your child's backpack causing health issues? Get tips for the right fit!

August 09, 2022
back to school backpack safety

It’s back-to-school time, which means that students from elementary through high school will be carrying backpacks weighed down with textbooks, binders, laptops, lunch, and school sports gear.

All those supplies can really weigh children down.

Baystate health experts explain how a heavy backpack can get kids started off on the wrong foot this school year.

Why is backpack safety important?

Unless your child has decided to take up juggling as a class, they’ll likely need a backpack to carry their things to school.

But a study reported by the American Physical Therapy Association found that more than 50 percent of children surveyed carry backpacks that are too heavy.

These too-heavy backpacks can have a negative impact on your child’s health.

What are the effects of a heavy backpack?

“As essential as backpacks are, if they are too heavy or worn incorrectly, they can strain muscles and joints and may cause back pain for the over 79 million students in the United

States that carry them,” said Peter Ouellette, doctor of physical therapy at Baystate Rehabilitation Care – Palmer.

Not all backpack-related injuries are a result of overload.

“Studies have shown that many emergency room visits made by school age children involve injuries received to their feet, wrists and elbows from tripping over backpacks,” said Kevin Smith, Occupational Therapist (OT) and Certified Hand Therapist at Baystate Wing Hospital.

“In addition, carrying a heavy pack changes the way kids walk and can increase the risk of falling, particularly on stairs or other places where the backpack puts the student off balance. By following these backpack guidelines, you can help your child establish good habits to avoid pain now and later in life.”

When can a child start wearing a backpack?

According to the Baby Center, a child can start wearing a backpack once they can hold a toy in their hand while walking.

That being said, you can’t just stick any ol’ giant backpack onto your child. There are different sizes for kindergarten to high schoolers.

The Baby Center says you should make sure the backpack doesn’t go above your child’s shoulders or below their waist.

How much weight should a child carry in their backpack?

“Too heavy” will mean something different for each child.

“The American Occupational Therapy Association recommends that a loaded backpack weigh no more than 10 to 15 percent of the student’s body weight,” Smith said. “Lighter is always better. As an example, a child weighing 100 pounds should not carry a bag heavier than 15 pounds.”

Keep a close eye on your children and how they carry their backpack.

“If you notice that your child is slouching or leaning, or if your child complains about any kind of pain or numbness in the back or shoulders, the weight of the backpack may be too heavy,” Smith said.

What features are important on a backpack?

Kids Health shares some features that make backpacks safer for kids.

Make sure the straps are wide and padded so the straps don’t dig into your kid’s shoulders.

A padded back can make sure pencils and book corners don’t dig into their back.

Waist belts and having multiple compartments to store things in can distribute weight across the backpack.

Backpack safety tips

Backpack features are only serving their purpose if you use them properly.

“Make sure your child uses both straps when carrying the backpack,” said Dr. Ouellette. “Using one strap shifts the weight to one side and causes muscle pain and posture problems. The spine consists of 33 bones called vertebrae. Between the vertebrae are discs that act as natural shock absorbers. When shoulders bear a heavy weight incorrectly, it can cause the spine to compress unnaturally causing poor posture, an aching back, and shoulders, and weakened muscles.”

Before heading off for the day, make sure you have the right fit:

  • Adjust the shoulder straps so the backpack rests comfortably approximately two inches above the waist. A bag too high or low on the back can pull awkwardly on the shoulders.
  • Distribute weight evenly. Load heaviest items closest to the back and balance materials so that the wearer can easily stand up straight.
  • Keep in mind that bigger is not necessarily better. Parents should buy the best-designed backpack possible for their child. The more room there is in a backpack, the more your child will carry-and the heavier the backpack will be.
  • Regularly clearing out unnecessary items is the best way to ensure that the load remains bearable.


Baystate Rehabilitation Care has several sites throughout the health system. They provide a full range of rehabilitation services to help patients regain function and achieve recovery.

The team of experienced physical and occupational therapists will work with you and your referring physician to develop an individualized treatment plan designed to reach your goals. They also offer rehabilitation including: a certified hand program, treatment of vestibular disorders (balance, dizziness, and gait problems) and audiology and hearing aid dispensing.

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