Q. My son comes home from school with a ton of books crammed in his backpack, and it seems so heavy. Should I worry about him developing back or shoulder problems? How heavy is too heavy?
A. Everyone is back in school and your parenting worries have switched from sun burns and bug bites to getting all of those books, supplies and homework back and forth to school. Believe it or not, this has induced some debate in the medical literature – “Is it bad for children to be carrying around these loads?” A study in Italy from a few years ago found that the average backpack weight for middle school children was slightly over 20 pounds, and a maximum load measured in the study was almost 45% of the child’s body weight! This would be like having an adult carry an 80 pound sack to and from their work!
It’s not clear if carrying this weight is a hard workout, or if it actually can be harmful to those little developing bodies. There have been some biomechanical studies that have demonstrated that heavy loads in backpacks can change the angle of the spinal column as children walk, which in turn could stress muscles in new ways. However, other studies have not been able to find consistent evidence of long-term harm from carrying this weight – and presumably the books being carried can eventually lead to a long-term benefit once they are read.
Anyway, this is an unanswered question in medicine, so it is probably best to use common sense. Try to have children carry as little as they have to back and forth from school. When something heavy has to be carried, distribute the load as evenly as possible over their back and in their hands. If your child starts having any symptoms of pain or discomfort, that is a definitive sign that you have to do something different.
Dr. Mike Steiner is a pediatrician in the department of General Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine at UNC and North Carolina Children’s Hospital, a group of health-care professionals dedicated to improving the health of children and adolescents through clinical care, research, education and advocacy. The group includes over 25 physicians, practitioners, nurses and other health-care professionals. We supervise the care of children with general medical problems at N.C. Children’s Hospital, including the newborn nursery, primary care clinic and a complex care and diagnostic clinic that also sees patients at the N.C. Children’s Specialty Clinic located on the Rex Healthcare campus in Raleigh.