Originally published in Georgia Family Magazine
With August being that all important back to school month, most kids and parents are busy making lists and battling shopping crowds for the perfect back to school clothing, notebooks, lunch sack, and of course, the must have of all school supplies…a backpack. With so many styles and varieties to choose from: leather, nylon, clear, mesh, wheeled, one strap, two straps, camouflage, plaid, polka dots, flowers, ponies, sharks, even skulls, it’s easy for kids to get excited about choosing the accessory that will be with them everyday of the school year. But, parents, keep in mind, what’s more important than looks is the quality and fit of the pack.
Since many school districts across the country are limiting or doing away with lockers, (or students choose not to use the ones they have access to) kids are straining their muscles carrying around the entire day’s class load on their backs. Like human pack mules in the halls and school yards, they’re overburdened beyond capacity, with backpacks filled to the zippers with textbooks, notebooks, workbooks, pencils, pens, calculators, lunch bags and maybe a dictionary too. Oh, and lets not forget iPods, cell phones and PSP’s.
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, a backpack’s weight should never be more than 10 to 20 percent of the wearer’s total body weight. Have you put your kid’s backpack on the scale lately? Here’s what you may be looking at. The average school day in many areas consists of six classes, which require a textbook. The average textbook weighs around three pounds. Multiply that by six and you have 18 pounds. And that’s just the books! Now add a notebook, one to two pounds, for each class. Carrying this load around all day can cause the spine to compress unnaturally leading to serious strain on bones and muscles in the neck, shoulders and back. This generation’s kids are complaining of back pain and stiffness decades before their time.
Dr. Ray Brant, a well-known Macon chiropractor who is used to working with young patients stressed out from the weight of their backpacks explains, “The heavy posterior load on the spine causes improper growth. A child’s bones can’t grow like they should when improper stresses, like overweight packs, are placed on them.
Specifically what happens when a child puts on an overweight backpack is the heavy load pulls him backward. To compensate for the off balance feeling, he leans forward, usually hunching over a bit and curving the spine. Being hunched over makes it harder to see directly ahead, so then he’ll tilt his head back in order to compensate for that. One local mom commented that every time her son puts on his backpack for school, he looks like a wobbly turtle awkwardly standing upright.
Wearing a backpack on just one shoulder can be especially damaging because it causes the user to lean to the side, curving the spine sideways. A child that gets used to walking that way can develop some serious posture problems. Packs with straps that are too tight or too narrow are also harmful because they dig into the shoulders interfering with proper nervous system function. If while wearing his backpack, your child complains of numbness or tingling in the arms, it’s a sign that the straps should be examined.
Selecting the perfect pack
Parents, when you’re out shopping for this school year’s backpack, be sure to look for spine saving features like the following:
- two wide, padded shoulder straps for shock absorption and comfort
- a waist belt for added stability
- a thick layer of padding to protect your child’s back from hard, sharp-cornered textbooks
- multiple compartments to distribute the weight more evenly
- If your child’s school allows them, consider selecting a pack with wheels on the bottom so that the load can be pulled rather than warn. Wheeled models might not be ideal in some cases because they’re difficult to roll up stairs and maneuver through crowded hallways.
Keep the load down and the strain off.
Here are a few things for your child to remember when packing and wearing backpacks.
- Only put in books and supplies necessary for the day ahead and be sure to get rid of anything that doesn’t have a purpose. Things can really pile up if they’re not cleaned out regularly.
- Put heavy textbooks in the front of the pack, closest to the body, so they won’t pull backward and drag your child down.
- Make use of all those extra side and back compartments. This is a great way to balance the weight.
- Always, ALWAYS wear both shoulder straps. It may look a little cooler to have the pack draped causally over one shoulder, but a side leaning shuffle over time won’t enhance your child’s appearance.
- Use the waist belt. Most students don’t even notice this feature. But, it really makes a difference in the stability of the load. Those sudden hallway shifts and dodges won’t throw him nearly as off balance.
- Adjust the shoulder straps to a comfortable length with the pack fitting squarely on your child’s back, not below the waist.
- If any teachers allow textbooks to be left in their classrooms, take advantage of that and eliminate the extra weight.
- Partner with your children’s teachers to find out exactly what they need for their classes. Ask if there are extra text books that can be kept at home.
- Observe your child. If he is complaining of back pain, take it seriously and see what can be done to lighten the load.
- If the school has lockers, use them. (According to a random poll of high school students, many who have access to lockers don’t use them, opting to wear the day’s load and save their passing periods for socializing rather than locker trips. While we parents shudder at the thought of our youngsters risking their precious postures for two extra minutes with friends, it’s a pretty common practice. Encourage your son or daughter to get into the habit of storing their unneeded books, rather than lugging the unnecessary cargo around.)
Dave Gowan, Risk Management Director for Bibb County Schools assures that they aren’t cutting corners where lockers are concerned. “All middle schools and high schools in the county have lockers. Plus the new schools currently under construction, such as Howard Middle and Central and Southwest High Schools will have plenty as well. Students just need to use them and lighten their loads whenever they can.”
For a whole host of articles on kids’ health and safety practices, visit the American Academy of Pediatrics at www.aap.org.