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“As the workhorse of school supplies, choosing a backpack is a big decision,” says Charleston, SC mom and style expert Lee Heyward, author of Simply Effortless Style. “Consider how much work a backpack for school has to do. Is the bus stop or school a long walk away? Will your child have to carry multiple books all day?” Those are just some of the considerations that should point you toward buying your child an ergonomic backpack for the school year.
Like back to school clothes, backpacks need to be tried on, too, because poor fit and incorrect use can cause problems for your student.
“Improper fit and use of a backpack can cause muscle strain, which causes pain,” says Dr. Jennifer Sohal, an orthopedic surgeon at the St. Vincent Spine Institute at St. Vincent Medical Center in Los Angeles. “Pain across the shoulders or diffusely in the lower back at the end of the school week that improves over the weekend may be due to carrying a backpack that’s too heavy or that doesn’t fit properly.”
Plus young children are still growing, so certain areas, like the growth plate — cartilage at the end of long bones where growth occurs — are more susceptible to injury. One common cause is repetitive/overuse injuries, which may occur from improperly carrying a heavy school backpack daily.
Ergonomics, as defined by Merriam-Webster, is the science of designing and arranging things people use so that the people and things interact most efficiently and safely. An ergonomic backpack, then, is one that’s built to be comfortable and functional.
Before you start shopping, do a little math (and not just for budget purposes). “No more than 15 percent of a child’s body weight should be carried in the backpack,” Sohal says. Weigh your child to determine how much of a load she’s able to bear. Then measure her torso length so you can choose a school backpack that’s long or short enough to allow the hip belt to rest on her hipbones.
While many parents and kids already look for wide, padded shoulder straps that provide comfort for heavy loads, the hip belt is another important feature. “Kids’ book bags that offer only shoulder straps cause the entire load to be carried on the shoulders, which can result in upper-back and neck strains,” notes biomedical engineer and veteran backpacker Kevin Strauss of Leesburg, VA. Some ergonomic backpacks also come with sternum straps to help hold the pack in place, and other backpacks feature molded backs to encourage proper posture.
“You just have to keep trying them on and loading them up with stuff in the store to get a sense of the weight and fit,” says Elizabeth Welsby, a mother of three in Chapel Hill, NC. Ask your child to walk around the store as you continue shopping. If he gets pinched or strained or feels fatigued, try another model.
Although it may not be cool, the recommended way to carry a school backpack is high, straps on both shoulders, and hip belt and sternum strap fastened, according to Sohal and Strauss.
“Position the backpack so the weight is over your child’s hips and pull the shoulder straps snug, but not tight,” Strauss advises. Have the backpack as close to your back as possible, so you can “freely move about as if the backpack was a part of you.”
Try following this advice when you’re back to school shopping this summer. It’ll help your student avoid unnecessary pain, and help you save money by finding a backpack that lasts.