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Backpack Safety Tips from NJ Experts

Bring on the backpacks! Backpacks come in all sorts of shapes, sizes, fabrics and colors. They allow kids to express their sense of style and personality, and to show off their interests. Kids then load—well, often overload—them with pencils, pens, books, lunchboxes and more. But did you know that overloaded backpacks injure thousands of school children every year in the U.S.?

In fact, doctors and hospitals in the United States treated 10,000 children between the ages of five and 18 for backpack-related injuries in 2015, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. Poor-fitting backpacks may put kids at risk for muscle injuries as well as back, neck and shoulder pain. They must be used and worn correctly to avoid strains, sprains, posture problems and other injuries.

Promoting backpack safety helps prevent back and neck pain and it introduces positive lifelong behaviors. “You’re establishing good habits to take them from elementary school through high school and college,” says Jordan Kovacs, DC, a chiropractor who owns Eatontown Elite Care Center and is the American Chiropractic Association Alternate Delegate for New Jersey and state board member of the Association of New Jersey Chiropractors. “You’re setting them up for better spinal health for the future. Every ounce of prevention we can instill early on will reap rewards down the road.”

In fact, National School Backpack Awareness Day, sponsored by the American Occupational Therapy Association, is held annually on the third Wednesday of each September. Taking place this month on September 20, the day aims to educate people of all ages on how to properly choose, pack, lift and carry backpacks.

When used properly, backpacks are an ideal and practical way to help kids carry what they need for the day. Below are some helpful tips to follow for safe backpack use.

backpack safety, safety tips

Know what features to look for

Wide, padded, adjustable shoulder straps: Narrow and unpadded straps can dig into shoulders and put too much pressure on a small area of the body, causing pain and discomfort. Wide, padded ones help distribute weight evenly, reducing the risk of muscle injury or strain.

A padded back: A padded back will protect sharp edges on objects inside the pack from rubbing against your child. And it will be more comfortable.

A lightweight feel: That way the backpack itself won’t add much weight to the load. Leather bags may look fashionable, but they typically weigh more than canvas bags. Bags designed to carry laptops often have extra padding, which makes them heavier. “Just be sure it’s not too light or flimsy,” says Dr. Kovacs. It should hold contents in a structured way, he says.

A waist or chest strap: It can distribute the weight load and help relieve shoulder pressure.

Use caution with roller bags

Be mindful if you choose a roller bag. You want one that’s not too big or bulky, rolls smoothly and has a sturdy and easy-to-extend handle. Keep in mind that they’ll be hard to roll in the snow and you’ll need the strength to carry them up and down staircases. And you typically roll them with one hand and the same hand which isn’t good, says Dr. Kovacs. Some schools have banned them since they can create tripping hazards or clutter hallways. “A properly-fitted, two-strap, padded bag is a better alternative than a roller bag,” says Dr. Kovacs.

backpack safety, safety tips

Choose the right-sized backpack

“There are different-sized backpacks for different-aged and different-sized kids,” says Diana Starace, injury prevention coordinator for the Trauma & Injury Prevention Department at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Brunswick and coordinator of Safe Kids Middlesex County. “Choose the right size for your child.”

If she feels tingling, discomfort or numbness in her arms or legs, the backpack may be too heavy or a poor fit. If it seems heavy, have your child carry some books in her arms. This will help reduce the load on her back. And while a roomier backpack seems like a good idea, your child will likely fill all the space in it. “It should be narrower and shorter than the child’s torso,” says Marissa Fisher, RN, Safe Kids Hudson County Coordinator-Jersey City Medical Center. The backpack shouldn’t hang more than four inches below the child’s waist, Fisher says.

Use both shoulder straps

“Using one strap shifts the weight to one side and can cause muscle soreness and posture problems,” says Fisher. Instead, use both straps. Adjust the straps to keep the load high on the child’s back and make sure the straps are comfortable. The bag should fit snugly around the body and not tilt down, she says. If it’s too loose, it will strain his back, says Starace.

Teach kids proper form

Encourage them to bend at the knees when lifting backpacks. Avoid bending at the waist when wearing or lifting a backpack. “Stand up and then put it over the shoulders,” says Starace. He needs to have good posture when he’s wearing the bag. Otherwise, that’s a sign that he needs to lighten the load or get a new bag, says Dr. Kovacs.

backpack safety, safety tips

Kids should only carry what they need

Kids shouldn’t lug around all their books all day. Encourage them to stop at their lockers and drop off heavier books. They should carry as few items as possible, leaving anything home that’s not essential like toys or electronic games. Consider asking for two sets of books, one for home and one for school. And clean out the bag weekly. “Little things get lost here and there in the crevices of the backpack,” says Dr. Kovacs. “When you’re dealing with so many heavy books, the lighter, the better.”

The bag should weigh four to 10 pounds at most, says Fisher. Dr. Kovacs says that younger kids’ bags should be no more than five to 10 percent of their weight. Older kids’ bags can be up to 15 percent of their weight. Weigh your child on the scale both with and without the backpack to determine the percentage.

Organize it right

Place heavier items, such as textbooks, closest to the back and the center of the backpack. Put lighter items further away from the back, says Dr. Kovacs. Take advantage of all the bag’s compartments to help load up the bag properly.