Your child may tell you that slinging that fully loaded backpack over one shoulder is cool, but it’s an invitation to injury.

Here is what health professionals say you need to know to avoid the muscle pain and posture problems that can result from using a backpack incorrectly:

What to Buy

  • Select a backpack with well-padded shoulder straps to help protect the shoulders and neck. These straps should be adjusted so the pack fits snugly against your child’s back. A pack hanging loosely from the back can pull a child backward and strain muscles.
  • Select a smaller backpack for your younger child. The backpack itself should be light in weight.
  • Consider a pack with a waist belt to help distribute the weight of the pack evenly.
  • Consider buying a pack on wheels, similar to the carry-on valise used by airplane travelers. Caution: These carriers are not for everyone, as they are difficult to maneuver in snow, and up and down stairs. Some schools don’t allow them.

How to Carry It Safely

  • A loaded backpack should weigh between 10 and 15% of a child’s body weight, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. For example, a child weighing 100 pounds shouldn’t carry more than 15 pounds.
  • Help your child learn to carry the pack evenly weighted with straps over each shoulder. Place heavier items, like books, at the bottom and arrange other materials so they won’t slide around in the backpack.
  • Encourage your child to check the contents daily and leave unnecessary items at home or at school.
  • Show your child how to bend at the knees when putting on a backpack. She shouldn’t bend over at the waist when wearing or lifting a heavy backpack.
  • Help your child learn back-strengthening exercises to build up the muscles required to carry a backpack. A pediatrician, health professional or athletic trainer can suggest some proper exercises.
  • Encourage your child or teenager to tell you if he’s feeling back or neck pain, and get your pediatrician’s advice if he does.

Lighten the Load

Here are some alternatives to help solve the overloaded backpack syndrome. For starters, ditch the pack altogether and try these creative approaches to saving your child’s posture and back.

  • Help your parent organization raise money for a second set of books for each child, one to keep at home and the other to leave at school. Some schools are already doing this.
  • If your child is in middle school or high school, talk to other parents and school officials about the possibility of initiating block scheduling, a system in which classes meet for longer periods on alternating days. That means students take home fewer books.
  • Find out if your school is experimenting with an Internet-based curriculum or school materials on CD-ROMs, which can cut down on the use of textbooks. See if there are ways you or other tech-savvy parents can help.