by Tom Rees, DPT
Mountain West Physical Therapy

Backpacks are an important part of going back to school. They come in all sizes, colors and shapes. As practical as backpacks are, there is more to consider than just style and function when selecting one for your child.

Allison Mason, physical therapist at the Mountain West Physical Therapy Sports Academy and Racquet Club clinic says, “It’s important for children to have a backpack that fits them properly. An ill-fitting backpack can cause pain and posture problems.” 

Parents should pay close attention to the way the backpack fits their child. It’s also important to keep a close eye on how much weight they carry and the way the shoulder straps fit. You should check these things both when purchasing the backpack at the beginning of the year and throughout the school year.

Here are a few simple tips to help you and your child find and maintain the best backpack fit:

Physical Therapist Brad Thomas says, “Make sure your child uses both straps when carrying his or her backpack. Using only one strap can strain the back and shoulder and create muscle imbalances.” He recommends wide, padded shoulder straps to reduce compression on vulnerable nerves and arteries. 

“The backpack should sit on your child’s torso one to two inches below the shoulders and down to the small of the back,” said Physical Therapist Larry Hunter. “It should never ‘sag’ toward the buttocks.” Most stores have a wide selection that should allow you to choose smaller backpacks for younger children, and a little more “grown-up” styles and sizes as children grow.

Physical Therapist Rob Malan recommends keeping your child’s backpack weight below 10 to 15 percent of their body weight. “Your child should only carry items that are required for the day, and place their heaviest items closest to the back.” Some students choose to purchase multiple copies of their textbooks in order to have a copy at school and one to leave at home.

It is also a good idea to observe your children’s posture with the backpack on. They should be able to stand upright without a change in her normal posture. If your child is leaning forward or arching his or her back to carry the load, you may need to help them downsize the contents of the backpack, adjust the straps or find a backpack that better meets his or her individual needs.

A physical therapist can help you assess your child’s backpack and posture while wearing the backpack. Like children, backpacks come in a variety of shapes and sizes, and sometimes backpacks will require individual adaptation for your child.