Our Kids' School Backpacks Are Too Heavy

by Rachel Garlinghouse
Originally Published: 
Courtesy of Rachel Garlinghouse

I’m rushing out the door after my son, reminding him to grab his backpack. He doesn’t hear me, and instead is distracted with his sister’s rock collection. I order him to get his shoes on while I turn back into the house to get his backpack. I pull it from the hook in our hallway—and it drops to the floor with a heavy thud.

“Why is this thing so damn heavy?” I ask aloud to no one in particular. I tug down the zipper to find his lunchbox, water bottle, folder, a wadded-up jacket, a textbook, crumpled up papers, a few broken pencils, and a comic he likes to read on the bus. I frantically toss the pencils and papers into the trash and hurry out the door, trying to shove my son’s arms into the straps. Hopefully we can make it to the bus stop on time.

How many times have I heard someone laugh and comment that my kids’ backpacks are “bigger than they are?” Each of my four children carries a bag that starts at the base of their neck and hangs past their rear. They are loaded down, every day. I’m constantly adjusting the straps, mending material tears, and un-sticking zippers.

Experts are telling us what we already know. Our kids are carrying too much. But at what cost? And what are we supposed to do about it? After all, our kids need certain essential materials — such as textbooks — for their school day.

Karen Jacobs, national spokesperson for the American Occupational Therapy Association, offers some fabulous tips to ensure our kids’ have a great — and healthy — school year.

How Much Weight A Backpack Should Hold?

Common signs that your child’s backpack is overloaded and ill-fitted include pain, fatigue, redness, swelling, and discomfort. The most obvious sign your child’s backpack isn’t working? The child complains. If these symptoms go unaddressed, the child can experience long-term pain that requires medical intervention.

Common signs that your child’s backpack is overloaded include pain, fatigue, redness, swelling, and discomfort. The most obvious sign? The child complains.

Luckily, we don’t have to let it go that far. First, make sure your child’s backpack is no more than 10% of their body weight. It’s entirely possible that the child is carrying too much, so to lighten the load, Jacobs suggested a nightly backpack clean-out. What can be taken out for the next day and left at home? And what can stay at school? If you are uncertain, have a conversation with your child’s teacher.

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Jacobs also shares that one way to reduce backpack weight is for the child to fill his or her reusable water bottle at school rather than fill it at home, weighing down their bag even more. Ditch the disposable water bottles. They add unnecessary weight, are expensive, and are bad for the environment.

How Do You Select A Backpack?

Choosing a backpack is no easy feat. Many younger kids prefer character-themed, cheaply-made backpacks with thin straps, a flimsy base, and a poorly constructed hook. But Jacobs warns us that not only do these backpacks not last, but they are also part of the source of our children’s pain. They aren’t made to carry much weight, and they often do not fit the child properly.

She recommends shopping for backpacks in-person rather than online, so the child can try the backpack on, see if all of their essentials fit inside, and the parent can make sure the bag can be properly adjusted. If you do buy online from a trusted, quality company, make sure the backpacks are returnable in case the selected bag doesn’t meet guidelines.

It’s not a bad idea to measure your child’s back, both height and width, when ordering online. You’ll notice backpacks are often described in terms of inches—which can help you decide if a bag is likely to be the proper size for your child before purchasing.


Rolling backpacks can help ease back-strain, but aren’t permitted in many schools for safety reasons. If you do opt for a rolling backpack for your child, they need to alternate the hand they use to pull the bag, ensuring they don’t strain one side from overuse. Jacobs doesn’t recommend cross-body bags, as they don’t evenly distribute content weight.

A Backpack Should Fit and Be Worn Correctly.

A child’s backpack should fit well on the shoulder blades down to the child’s waist, forming a rectangle. The back of the bag—the part that rests against the child’s back–should be well-padded. Likewise, the straps should be well-padded. Jacobs suggests that older children own a backpack that offers a chest and waist strap for extra support. And all children should always wear their backpack on both shoulders. When loading the backpack, heavier items should be toward the back.

She also offers parents an important safety reminder. A child’s name or initials should never be on the outside of the backpack—as you don’t want a stranger attempting to lure your child by calling out his or her name, pretending there’s familiarity. Utilize the inside identification tag instead, writing down your child’s name and your phone number with permanent marker. It’s also a good idea to make sure there’s reflective strips on the backpack given the pending daylight savings time change. Many children will travel to and from school when there’s limited light.

If your child’s bag feels like it contains the proverbial ton of bricks, or you see your kiddo wearing their bag on one shoulder, it’s time to make some changes.

With the upcoming fall and winter weather, parents should adjust their child’s backpack straps to be compatible with the child’s outerwear. Thinner outerwear such as rain jackets, fleece zip-ups, and windbreakers require less strap adjusting, while puffy winter coats will require more. And be aware that children grow in spurts and often quickly. Keep an eye on their backpack, and if they do outgrow it, pass it on to a younger sibling or friend, or consider donating it.

If your child’s bag feels like it contains the proverbial ton of bricks, or you see your kiddo wearing their bag on one shoulder, it’s time to make some changes. A little work now can prevent unnecessary health issues in the future.

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