Backpacks are great for kids to carry items back and forth from school to home, but backpacks that weigh more than 15 percent of your child’s body weight may cause health problems for your child. Neck, shoulder and back pain may develop from carrying a heavy backpack everyday.

The spine is made of 33 bones (called vertebrae) that have disks in between them that act as natural shock absorbers. A child carrying an unusually heavy backpack leans their head and chest forward to compensate for the weight of the back, which puts stress on the back and neck. If your child uses only one strap to carry her backpack, the spine’s natural shock absorption ability is reduced because only one side is carrying the weight and your child will end up leaning to one side to make up for the extra weight in the pack.

Backpacks, if used properly, can be very useful for children. When choosing a backpack, check to make sure that it has two wide, padded straps that fit over your child’s shoulders, a padded waist or chest belt that will distribute weight more evenly across the body, multiple compartments to distribute weight and does not have a width greater than the child’s chest.

Backpacks that have metal frames, such as those used by hikers, are better for your child’s back, but may not fit into lockers at school. Backpacks on wheels are also better for your child’s back, but many schools do not allow them, as other children may trip over them in hallways. Check with your child’s school to see what their policy is for these types of packs.

Parents can help prevent backpack-related injuries by:

• Teaching your child to pick up and put on the backpack correctly. Your child should face the backpack, bend at the knees, grab the pack with both hands to lift it, and put one strap on at a time.

• When wearing a backpack bend both knees when you bend down. Do not bend over at the waist when wearing or lifting a heavy backpack.

• Encouraging your child to use her locker frequently during the day.

• Telling your child to avoid carrying unnecessary items in her backpack. If your child does need to carry heavy items, such as sporting equipment, the heavier items should be placed in the back of the pack, closer to the body.

• Helping your child with homework planning. If you notice that he or she is putting off assignments until the weekend, help her manage homework time during the week to avoid having a heavier pack on Fridays and Mondays.

• Putting sharp objects, such as scissors, that can poke through the backpack in protective containers.
If your child experiences back, shoulder or neck pain, struggles to get her backpack on or off, leans forward when carrying her pack or has numbness or weakness in her arms or legs, contact your pediatrician.

Sally Robinson is a clinical professor of pediatrics at UTMB Children’s Hospital. This column isn’t intended to replace the advice of your child’s physician.