We can hear parents across the state rejoicing this week as kids head back to school for the start of a new year. A relaxing Summer holiday was likely finished with the chaos of organising books, uniforms, shoes and backpacks.

I remember being so excited as a child to go into Officeworks to choose the trendiest and most colourful stationery, followed by a trip to the shoe shop to be fitted for the right pair of shoes. What I don’t remember, though, is ever being fitted for the perfect backpack.

Backpacks come in a whole range of shapes, sizes, colours and fabrics. Some come with wide, padded straps, whilst others may have narrow straps. Many children see their backpack as a way for them to express their own individual sense of style. However, backpacks are designed to serve a much more practical purpose, and when fitted incorrectly, can be damaging to the developing spine of a child.

You simply need to pass by a school or bus stop to see a wide range of students carrying heavy, overloaded backpacks in all manner of ways. Some with straps over both shoulders, some with bags slung over one shoulder, some with bags hanging low. If you pay closer attention, you will then see the ways in which this affects their posture.

Overloaded and incorrectly worn backpacks can be a major cause of chronic strain on a child’s body. The average student attends school for 40 weeks per year (or 200 days) over 12 years. Imagine the cumulative effect of carrying a heavy, ill-fitted backpack for that amount of time! It’s no wonder this can result in neck, shoulder and back pain in children.

When a heavy backpack is incorrectly placed on the shoulders, the weight can pull a child backwards. To compensate, a child is likely to bend forward at the hips and roll their shoulders forward, altering the natural curve of the spine and resulting in a rounded upper back.

Similarly, children who wear their backpack over one shoulder end up leaning to one side to offset the weight of the bag. This can result in both upper and lower back pain, as well as straining their shoulders and neck.

Backpacks with tight, narrow straps can dig into the shoulders and can interfere with circulation and nerves, leading to tingling, numbness and weakness in the arms and hands.

So, with all of this information about what the wrong backpack can do, how do we know how to choose the right one?

When selecting a backpack, it is helpful to look for the following features:

  • a lightweight backpack – one that doesn’t add a lot of extra weight to the child’s load on top of the contents of the bag
  • 2 wide, padded shoulder straps that sit well on the shoulder
  • padded back support
  • waist and chest straps to help transfer the load to the hips and pelvis
  • multiple compartments to help distribute the weight throughout the pack
  • appropriate size – it should be no wider than the child’s shoulders and when sitting with the backpack on, it should not extend higher than the shoulders

Once you have chosen the best backpack for your child, it is important to then ensure that it is used wisely.

The Australian Physiotherapy Association has provided the following advice for appropriate use of a backpack and reducing load:

  • school children should wear a backpack that weighs no more than 10% of their body weight (for example, a child weighing 40kg should be carrying no more than 4kg in their backpack)
  • children should wear both straps at all times
  • tighten the straps enough for the backpack to fit closely to the body – the backpack should rest evenly in the middle of the back and not sag down to the buttocks
  • wear the backpack with the load close to the spine – pack the heaviest items nearest the child’s back
  • ensure your child is only carrying what they need – encourage your child to be organised and check their timetable when packing their bag for school to avoid carrying unnecessary items
  • have separate folders for each subject and only bring home what is needed for homework

If you are concerned about your child’s posture or back health, contact your physiotherapist for more information.