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Backpack Safety

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Don’t let your child’s backpack lead to dangerous health consequences.

There’s potential danger lurking in your child’s innocent-looking backpack. It can cause accidents, especially if it’s too heavy. In fact, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, more than 21,000 backpack-related injuries were treated at hospital emergency rooms, doctor’s offices, and clinics between 1999 and 2000. Tripping, falling, or being hit by a backpack caused roughly 89 percent of all backpack-related injuries.

Take the following steps to ensure that your child’s backpack doesn’t end up leading you to the doctor’s office:

Watch the Weight: Experts recommend that the weight of a child’s backpack be no more than 15 percent of their total body weight. That’s 12 pounds maximum for an 80-pound child, for example. Heavier loads are more likely to cause posture problems, fatigue, strains and other injuries. Have your child fill the backpack and then put it on the scale. You might both be surprised by its weight!

Get a Good Fit: The American Academy of Chiropractic Pediatrics suggests that parents shop for a backpack with two wide padded shoulder straps, a padded back, a waist belt that helps distribute weight, and multiple compartments. Smaller backpacks are safer, as they limit the load and are less likely to pose a hitting or tripping hazard in tight spaces such as on the school bus. The pack should sit close to the child’s body and rest about 2 inches above the waist (after adjusting the straps). If your child doesn’t want a new backpack, check the fit of the old to make sure he or she hasn’t outgrown it.

Keep it Centered: It may look cool to carry a backpack slung over one shoulder, but it’s a bad idea, experts say. Doing so throws the body out of balance, and can lead to back, neck, or shoulder strain and pain. Children should wear the backpack as designed, using both shoulder straps, with the weight squarely centered in the middle of the back.

Stick to the Bare Necessities: Backpacks can become clutter magnets, so sort through the contents regularly to make sure all of the items inside really are necessary. Are all of the books truly needed for that night’s homework? Are toys or electronic gadgets adding to the load? Could some items be stored at school in a desk or locker instead? If books must be carried often, consider buying a duplicate set for use at home.

Balance the Load: Place heavier items, like textbooks, in the center of the backpack. Put smaller items in the multiple compartments to keep them organized and balance the load. Have your child put on the filled backpack and observe his or her posture. Is he or she straining to carry the load? Or leaning forward or back to compensate for the weight? If so, the pack is too heavy or needs adjustment.

Practice Safe Lifting: Teach your child to bend at the knees (not the waist) to pick up the backpack, using both hands. If it’s too heavy to lift easily, it’s too heavy to wear. Swinging or heaving the backpack to get it in place can cause back strain or injure others who get hit when they’re standing nearby. Also caution children not to bend over at the waist while wearing the backpack, as it can slip and hit them in the head or throw them off balance and cause a fall.

Consider Adding Wheels: Many school backpacks now feature wheels and handles, similar to carry-on luggage, so they can be pulled rather than carried. But beware: Some schools don’t allow them, they don’t roll well on many surfaces, and they may not work in adverse weather like snow. Wheeled backpacks still shouldn’t weigh more than 15 percent of a child’s body weight, in case they need to lug it.

Don’t Ignore Pain: Tell your child to let you know right away if he or she is experiencing any pain, numbness, tingling, weakness in the arms or legs, or other warning signs that the backpack might be causing trouble. If the problem doesn’t go away when the pack is removed, seek medical attention.

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