Strapping on a backpack is part of a student's daily ritual but choosing the one right for your son or daughter takes some careful consideration and possibly even some negotiation.
"It's a challenge because you want to find something your kid is going to like but you also want something that's functional and will last the school year," says Canadian Chiropractic Association spokesperson Dr. Annette Bourdon of Montreal, Que. "You want a backpack that's well designed so it's not going to injure them."
Finding the perfect fit
Ensuring the backpack is proportional to your child's height and weight should be your top priority. It should be about the same width as the child's back and shoulders. In terms of height, it should sit between the top of the shoulders and the top of the hips.
Once loaded, the lowest part of the backpack should never hang more than 4 inches below the waistline. Make sure your child wears both shoulder straps and ensure they're properly adjusted so they're snug but not too tight, which causes the backpack to be worn too high, Bourdon says.
Look for pockets
Choose a backpack with several pockets rather than one large compartment. A divider allows your child to place heavier items -- such as binders, textbooks and a laptop -- closer to the body and supporting back muscles. "Pockets help organize content and distribute weight evenly," says Bourdon.
Remember, bigger is not necessarily better
"The bigger the purse, suitcase or backpack, the more stuff we put in it," Bourdon says. "Kids are carrying tablets, iPads, laptops and MP3 players -- items that are as heavy as and sometimes even heavier than a textbook."
Potential health risks
"Wearing a backpack that's too heavy and/or poorly adjusted can lead to poor posture, neck pain, headaches, mid and/or lower back pain, muscle strain, inflammation and even nerve damage," Bourdon says. "Wearing a backpack on one shoulder or too high or too low can lead to curvature of the spine, known as scoliosis, and contribute further to bad posture."
Posture is important, agrees Canadian Physiotherapy Association spokesperson Shelly Malcolm Beazley, a physiotherapist with Cove Sport Therapy in Dartmouth, N.S. "We often think about back problems with backpacks but neck problems are relatively common too," she says.
"The use of technology -- laptops, iPods and other electronics -- causes kids to get into a head forward posture and a backpack can do that same thing, which is tough on the neck and shoulders."
Ask your children if their backpacks are comfortable. Malcom Beazley recommends working with teachers to ensure children aren't transporting items they don't need every day. "Limit the amount of time they spend carrying their backpack," she says. "If they're at a bus stop, for example, encourage them to set it on the ground while waiting for the bus to arrive."
Before embarking on your quest for the perfect backpack, be prepared to compromise, especially with younger children sure to care only about whether a backpack features their favourite TV or movie character. "Choose a lunch bag with their favourite character instead of a poorly designed backpack," says Bourdon.
Backpack health tips
Choosing it: Select a backpack made of lightweight material with two wide, adjustable shoulder straps, a waist belt, several individual pockets and a padded back. It should be proportionate to the child's body size.
Packing it: The load in a backpack should not exceed 10% of an elementary student's body weight and 15% of a high school student's weight.
Lifting it: A child should place their backpack on a table or chair, bend at the knees and lift with the legs while putting on one shoulder strap at a time.
-- Ontario Chiropractic Association