Beasts of burden
By Denise Wagner, M.A., BScOT, OT(C) & Ross Ehalt, BScOT, OT(C)
Would you ask your child to walk to school carrying a box of rocks, a bowling ball or a bag of sand on his or her back? Unfortunately, that is how heavy student backpacks are getting. Backpacks are not only used to carry textbooks and binders but also water-bottles, in-line skates, laptop computers, CD’s, gym clothes, shoes, cellphones, coats, lunches and beverage containers. A number of problems can occur if backpacks fit improperly, are too heavy, or are worn incorrectly.
The backpack should fit comfortably between the top edge of the shoulder down to the lower part of the back. It should sit along the top of the hipbone, not at the top of the back or lower on the buttocks. Shoulder straps should be well padded and shaped so that they are wider over the shoulder and narrower as they pass under the arms. A wide hip belt will help distribute the packing weight better than a narrow one. This also keeps the weight closer to the body and helps to steady the load. For students carrying a lot of textbooks, binders, or a laptop, look for backpacks that have a foam-padded panel that goes along the centre of the pack. This will prevent sharp edges and corners from digging into the child’s back. For children who are younger (between the ages of three and 11 years old) or who are smaller, child-sized versions of backpacks will give a better, more comfortable fit.
Things to watch for:
– complaints of aching in the shoulders, neck, and back;
– red marks and creases on the shoulders;
– hunched-over posture with the head down or jutting forward; leaning over to one side;
– awkward walking, tripping or stumbling, difficulties going up stairs or small inclines;
– difficulties with balance when walking or riding a bicycle; and
– signs of “hard work” or exertion, such as heavy breathing, noticeable flushing of the face, slowing down, complaints of tiredness or feeling weak.
Suggestions for proper use
Do not over pack! The weight of the pack should not exceed 10 to 15% of the child’s body weight. The 10% ratio is a guideline for elementary school children, and the 15% range can be used with junior and senior high school students. For example, a 27 kg (60 lb.) grade one student should carry no more than 2.5 kg (6 lbs.); a 55 kg (120 lb.) high school student should carry no more than 8kg (18 lbs.) Place heavier items on top and along the back of the pack. This puts the greatest amount of weight higher up on the back and closer to the body. If the pack is too heavy, consider using one on wheels. Use both straps. Wearing a backpack over one shoulder can cause back problems and muscle strain. And remember, keep it simple—pack only the items that are absolutely needed.
References: AOTA: Backpacks & Kids- 1999, AOTA: Bearing the Backpack Burden- 2001.
Reprinted with permission from the Canadian Association of Occupational Therapists. www.caot.ca