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'Back' to the Basics

Doctors, parents weigh in on backpacks

August 20, 2012
By BETSY BETHEL - Associate Life Editor , The Intelligencer/Wheeling News-Register

Choosing a backpack is a weighty issue. Is it big enough? Too big? What color does your child want? What brand is the best value? Despite his pleas, do you want your child to be a walking advertisement for a cartoon character or consumer product?

And there's the actual weight of the pack. According to Dr. Jim Sears of the nationally renowned Sears family of pediatricians, the average child's school backpack weighs in at 20 percent of his or her body weight. The recommended weight for optimum health is 10 percent to 15 percent, he says.

While we didn't even carry backpacks when I was in elementary school, backpacks today are on every student's back-to-school supply list. They come in all shapes and sizes, and even at a young age, children often view their backpacks as extensions of their personalities and styles.

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While it’s cute when little ones try on big kids’ backpacks, it isn’t good for their backs to lug the weight on a regular basis. A child’s backpack should weigh no more than 10 percent to 15 percent of the child’s body weight, according to health experts.

On the high end, people may spend $100 or more on a designer pack. In fact, Gucci makes one with a price tag of $795, according to an Associated Press article about luxury trends in childrenswear.

That's more than the average American family will spend this year on their children for all of their back-to-school needs - which is $688, according to the National Retail Federation.

Retailers that specialize in outdoor gear are known for the durability of their branded packs, and they, of course, tend to be pricier. I had one in college; it also went with me overseas and I still have it - with no rips, tears, derailed zippers or detached straps. Another leading brand in quality backpacks, JanSport, is available at a half-dozen or more local outlets, including major chain department stores.

Department stores and discount stores - whether online or brick-and-mortar locations - are where most people get their packs at prices ranging from about $10-$40.

Once a family decides on a budget, the style is usually the next big decision to be made. Younger children tend to gravitate toward certain characters, although some parents may balk at those choices either because they fear the child will outgrow the character before the backpack wears out or because they don't want to "buy into" the consumerism.

"I have a real issue with suiting my kids up in logos and brand names...," writes Sierra Filucci in an Aug. 10 article. CommonSense is an independent media watchdog group. "I know my kids will already be exposed to some 25,000 ... ads before the age of 11, and I'm not interested in hurrying along the process. I'm also not interested in cementing their attachments to heavily marketed characters."

My daughter is 6 and I so far have been able to steer her away from characters on her backpacks (she is on her second one), although the lunch bag is a different story!

But more important than whose face is on the backpack or any other factor, Sears says, is whether or not the pack is safe for the child's back.

"Just because their favorite characters are on it or it's the perfect shade of blue doesn't mean it's well made. Look for bags with wide padded straps, lots of pockets to distribute weight, and one that's lightweight," Sears says.

The size of the pack can vary, but ultimately it should rest no more than 4 inches below the child's waistline and 2 inches below the shoulders, according to the American Occupational Therapy Association Inc., which sponsors the annual National School Backpack Awareness Day on the third Wednesday in September. It should be worn in the center of the back with straps over both shoulders - "none of that one shoulder stuff," Sears says.

And back to the actual weight of the pack: "A student weighing 100 pounds shouldn't wear a loaded school backpack heavier than about 10 pounds," the OT association says, adding parents should pick up the pack from time to time to check it, and they also make sure the student is lugging unnecessary items to and from school. Sears even says plop it on the scale once in awhile.

Other tips from the association are to load the back so the heaviest items are closest to the child's back and arrange materials so they are packed tightly and don't slide around.

Back pain associated with backpacks is not just hypothetical; the OT association has a fact sheet of statistics that includes:

- "In one (University of California) study with American students ages 11 to 15 years, 64 percent reported back pain related to heavy backpacks. Twenty-one percent reported the pain lasting more than six months."

- "More than 2,000 backpack-related injuries were treated at hospital emergency rooms, doctor's office and clinics in 2007," as reported by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.

While backpacks on wheels seemed to be the solution to the back health issue for several years, many schools have since banned them because they are a safety hazard in the hallways and around campus.



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