Practical Tips to Lighten School Backpacks

Carrying too much weight can lead to back pain and spasms, shoulder and neck pain, and posture issues for children.

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Children with heavy backpacks As children get older, their backpacks usually get heavier.
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Backpacks and Back Pain in Children

Recommendations vary on how much weight in a backpack is too much, but the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons says it shouldn’t be more than 20% of your child’s weight. The ideal weight is no more than 10%. For a 60-pound child, 10% of body weight works out to 6 pounds, while 20% would be 12 pounds. You can test the weight on your bathroom scale.

Here's what you need to know to help your children lighten up their backpacks:

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Buy the right backpack

Start with shopping for a lightweight, well-designed backpack. These are some things to look for:

See Potential Causes of Back Pain in Children and Teens

  • Skip the leather. Backpack materials can add to the weight, so look for the most lightweight, but durable, options. Online retailers such as Lands End and outdoor-oriented retailers often have a good selection.
  • Get the smallest size possible. You want everything important to fit, but extra space in a backpack may encourage your young pack rat to stuff unneeded items into the backpack, adding to the weight.
  • Look for compartments. Compartments also may reduce clutter. An outside mesh pocket for a water bottle makes it less likely your child will have a forgotten—and heavy—water bottle in the bottom of the backpack.
  • Pack a separate lunchbox. A heavy lunchbox can add to the weight. Consider having your child carry the lunchbox separately rather than packing it into the backpack.
  • For band instruments or laptops, kids may find it more comfortable to use a separate bag or a case with a handle.

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Rolling backpacks may seem like an obvious solution, but check with your kids’ school before picking one out. Some schools ban rolling backpacks because they can be a tripping hazard in crowded hallways, and they can be hard to use on stairs and when navigating the school bus. Also, your child’s locker may not be big enough to fit a rolling backpack. Another drawback in some areas? The wheels don’t roll well in snow.

Be creative to reduce backpack weight

A new school year can be a fresh start. These ideas may help your family brainstorm ways to ease back strain from a heavy backpack this year:

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  • Talk with your child about ways to cut back on what’s carried. Kids can get in the habit of keeping all their books in the backpack all the time, whether they need them or not.
  • Check out online resources. Chapters can often be downloaded to an iPad or Kindle so the textbook isn’t needed each night.
  • See How to Avoid Text Neck Overuse Syndrome

  • Copy or scan chapters of the textbook at the beginning of the semester and keep the copies at home, eliminating the need to carry the textbook home most nights.
  • Buy a used copy of a heavy textbook to keep at home, allowing your child to avoid carrying it back and forth. Often, textbooks are available at a low price through Amazon.com or home-schooling websites.
  • Rather than bring a full bottle of water to school, bring a half-full or empty bottle and fill it up at school. Kids don’t always think about how heavy water is.
  • Clean out the backpack often. Some kids are worse than others, but if your child is on the messy side, unneeded papers and other odds and ends can add considerable weight.
  • Remind your kids to keep some books in their lockers, if possible, rather than carry everything throughout the day.
  • If a heavy band instrument is causing problems for your child, find out if there is a spare instrument your child could keep at home, or consider buying a used instrument or renting one to keep at home.

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School policies may unintentionally contribute to heavy backpacks. Locker space has shrunk over the years, and some schools have done away with lockers entirely for security or other reasons, forcing students to carry everything with them. Even in schools with lockers, there may not be enough time between classes for your children to retrieve books from the locker.

As a parent, you can advocate with teachers and school administrators for greater awareness of problems linked to heavy backpacks. Some simple changes might include replacing hardcover books with paperbacks and ending requirements that your children buy bulky 2½- and 3-inch binders.

Some schools provide duplicate textbooks for everyone, eliminating the need to tote books back and forth.

See Tips to Prevent Back Pain from Kids' Backpacks

If your child struggles to put on the backpack, it’s probably too heavy. Other signs of trouble include red marks on the shoulders, a tendency to lean forward with the pack, worsening posture overall, and headaches or aches in the neck, shoulders, or back.

See Identifying Incorrect Posture

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