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Heavy and ill-fitting backpacks can be a real pain.
Heavy and ill-fitting backpacks can be a real pain. Davi Sales/Adobe stock
Years ago, Karen Jacobs was dropping her kids off at the bus stop when two other young students caught her eye. One of the kids gently poked the other’s large backpack, causing him to fall backwards.

Jacobs, an occupational therapist, immediately turned to her children in the backseat and asked them how their backpacks felt. “My backpack’s really heavy,” her son admitted. She was appalled.

“That was the trigger for me,” Jacobs said, retelling the story.

Jacobs has since become a backpack safety expert and a Boston University professor, so she understands the feeling many parents have as back-to-school season creeps closer: What backpack should my child wear? And will it hurt them if it’s too heavy?

Local pediatric orthopedic specialists told the Globe a too-heavy backpack can in fact cause children to have some back discomfort, but there are a number of things families can do to avoid that. Here’s the breakdown.

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The size

This part is simple: The size of the backpack should be relative to the size of the child. Jacobs said to think of the child’s back like a rectangle, with the shoulder blades being at the top and the waist being the bottom. The backpack should fit comfortably in that shape.

“For a kindergartner, a big backpack that is larger than them doesn’t make any sense,” Jacobs said.

Stuart Braun, the chief of pediatric orthopedics at Floating Hospital for Children at Tufts Medical Center, said most kids will not have problems with their backpacks, but cautioned that some are “vulnerable” if the bag is too big.

The weight

Here’s where things get tricky. There are a lot of things students need for school — textbooks, notebooks, binders, computers, lunch boxes, water bottles, and more. These add up, and can put stress on children’s backs and shoulders, leading to pain if not addressed.

Fortunately, science is here to help. Unfortunately, the scientists don’t all agree. Jacobs says that a backpack should weigh only up to 10 percent of the body weight of a child. So, if a child weighs 100 pounds, their backpack should be no more than 10 pounds.

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Braun’s estimate is a little more liberal; he said the backpack should be less than 20 percent of the child’s weight. Age isn’t a big factor, he said, so long as the child is comfortable and the bag is proportional to their weight.

“If the family is concerned about the weight of the bag, then hop on a bathroom scale and measure the weight of the bag,” Braun suggested. “Try to limit what’s in the bag.”

Jacobs has a simple equation for determining if the weight is excessive.

“Pack the backpack. If the child says it’s heavy, it is heavy,” she said. “Your child can tell you if they’re comfortable.”

At that point, it’s the parent’s job to think critically and limit what goes in the backpack. Is that extra binder really needed? Can that textbook be converted into a digital version instead? Does that large water bottle need to be completely full before school starts?

“Kids go to school with bottles of water as if they’re going to a desert,” Jacobs said. “Take the empty water bottle to school and fill it up at school.”

The silver lining

There is some good news for anxious parents: There’s been no research that suggests overly hefty backpacks lead to long-term back or shoulder problems, the experts said.

For example, it is not likely to cause any chronic conditions like scoliosis, a curvature of the spine, Braun said. But it can lead to short-term discomfort, especially among students who walk to school every day.

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“Over the course of a school year [it] can lead to back pain,” Braun said.

Sometimes children will report shoulder or back aches after wearing a bag that’s too heavy or is worn inappropriately, and Jacobs said some students with uncomfortable backpacks as children have had lower back problems as teenagers.

The miscellaneous

In order to pick a healthy backpack, parents should take control of the shopping and selection process, Jacobs said. Families should go to the store together and try on backpacks to find the most comfortable, appropriate option.

“We have seen many parents say, ‘OK, so you want to have a backpack that has Black Panther on it? That’s fine, lets get it.’ Instead of saying, ‘Let’s get a backpack that fits you.’ ”

Parents should also look for bags that have padded adjustable straps (they’re just more comfortable) and padded hip straps (they distribute weight off the shoulders, especially among older students). And while pockets and compartments are nice, avoid having too many of them for younger kids.

Parents should also find backpacks that have reflective material, according to Jacobs. Especially in New England, where it gets dark early during the winter, it’s important for students to stay safe if they’re walking home in the dark.

One of Jacobs’s biggest tips is to “never, ever, ever” put your child’s name on their backpack, so strangers cannot identify them. Kids love customized bags, but don’t fret — initials are totally OK.

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J.D. Capelouto can be reached at jd.capelouto@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jdcapelouto.