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Big Backpack and Little Kids

They’re uncomfortable. But are heavy book bags hurting your kid's back?

Young girl with purple backpack holding multi-colored pencils
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Dear Doctor,

I swear my kids’ book bags weigh more than they do. I’m afraid carrying that much weight will cause poor posture or, worse, damage their growing bodies. Are heavy backpacks safe for them to use?

Sincerely,

“Love Books, Hate Backpacks”

Dear Love Books:

That image of a small child seemingly squashed down by a heavy book bag has been a staple of back-to-school season, but it turns out there really isn’t anything to worry about. There is no data to show that heavy backpacks interfere with a child’s physical development.

The causes of spine curvature in children and teens, known as pediatric scoliosis, are more complicated. Scoliosis can lead to spine curvature so significant it can cause disability or may require surgery to correct. These changes tend to occur when children are having growth spurts, often in the early teen years, which may make heavy backpacks seem like the culprit in some parents’ minds. But in most cases of scoliosis, there is no known cause.

The main issue here is comfort. Heavy or oversized bags may cause poor alignment and interfere with the actual mechanics of walking and moving around. The awkward motion can force muscles to work harder to keep the body aligned, leading to discomfort such as muscle aches. No one wants that for their children, to be sure, but there’s no need to fear that those aches are deforming their spines.

Make sure the bag is proportional to the child. Bags that are bigger than necessary for the child might also encourage overstuffing, making the bags heavier. Bags on wheels might not be a great alternative either. When children pull wheeled bags behind them, they tend to walk with their spines twisted. Again, it won’t damage their spine, but the poor alignment can cause discomfort.

The best way to wear a backpack is to use both shoulder straps with the weight evenly distributed. That means wearing the bag close to the body and not slung over one shoulder.

The bottom line is to aim for comfort. If your child isn’t comfortable, reconsider the size of their bag and ensure it is properly worn. And thanks to the increasing use of tablets in schools, soon kids may not have to carry books at all.

“The best way to wear a backpack is to use both shoulder straps with the weight evenly distributed. That means wearing the bag close to the body and not slung over one shoulder.”
David A. Essig, MD

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Published August 27th, 2019
A young woman with dark curly hair is using mobile phone. Female is smiling while holding smart phone. She is lying on sofa at home.

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