When six-year-old Shane Wong lifted his school backpack onto his 27kg frame on the first day of school last week, he "tilted forward", says his mum, restaurateur Celine Tan.
The bag contained a hymn book, a story book, coloured pencils, stationery, textbooks, workbooks, files and a full water bottle.
Ms Tan, 37, says: "The bag was 4.6kg and he couldn't stand up properly."
However, as teachers kept most of the books in school for the pupils' use when needed, his bag was just 2.6kg when SundayLife! photographed him on the third day of school.
Thankfully for Shane, a Primary 1 pupil at St Andrew's Junior School, and his peers, their bags have been lightened as the school addressed the problem.
Teachers usually offload workbooks as well as exercise and jotter books, leaving them in lockers or cubicles in school after the first few days.
Some schools, such as Alexandra Primary, went one step further. Says part-time dental assistant Chee Fui Fong, 40, whose daughter Kee Shi En is a Primary 1 pupil there: "On the first two days, Shi En had to take just one story book, water bottle and stationery to school. Her backpack was super light."
The Ministry of Education says it takes "the well-being and physical development" of students seriously and works with schools to "proactively guide students in lightening their school bags".
It adds that schools already have measures to "guide and remind" pupils to pack according to their daily timetables.
There are also lockers in classrooms in some schools for pupils to keep what they need in class on each day of the week.
The ministry says: "Teachers also carry out periodic checks on school bags and explain how students should carry only items that are needed for each school day".
Ministry guidelines stipulate that a child should carry a bag that weighs no more than 10 per cent to 15 per cent of his weight.
This means a child weighing 20kg should not lug a bag heavier than 2kg or 3kg.
Unfortunately, they do.
Parents SundayLife! spoke to say the load builds up as their children progress through primary school.
Housewife and mother of four Teresa Gan, 37, says: "The bags get heavier as they move up the primary levels."
One reason is that in Primary 1 and 2, children have books and worksheets for only three academic subjects - English, mathematics and mother tongue. From Primary 3, they also study Science.
Worse, books get thicker and there are more files to carry.
Citing her experience with her oldest child who is now in Primary 4, Ms Gan says: "From Primary 1 to 3, her bag was around 3.5kg to 4kg with a water bottle. Now, it's about 7kg or 8kg, with a water bottle.
"Sometimes, teachers who teach multiple subjects may decide to replace social studies with English or mathematics. So children take the books to be safe.
"Or a teacher may ask the children to bring a worksheet file for revision but does not collect it the next day. So the children will have to carry the extra weight needlessly back and forth."
Sales manager Glenn Ng, 43, and his wife, sales administrative assistant Violet Fong, 38, say their older three children change their bags every other year.
Mr Ng, 43, says: "The bags are so heavy, the seams tear every two years. During my time, one school bag lasted the six years of primary school."
His oldest child, Kenji, 12, has gone through three bags, while his daughters - Yuki, nine, and Yumi, eight, who study at Temasek Primary School - are each using her second bag.
Kenji, now a Secondary 1 student, recalls: "When I was in Primary 1 and 2, my father bought two sets of books. One for me to keep in school, and another for use at home."
Ms Fong, who also has a three-year-old son, says her daughters "tend to take all their books to school because they don't want to be scolded if they forget" an item.
Temasek Primary School principal Francis Foo, who is in his 50s, says: "Pupils assume they'll get scolded if they forget to bring a book to school. So they pack what's not necessary.
"If the child is forgetful, the parent can talk to the teacher through the student diary or make a call so the teacher can advise the child on what to bring the next day."
When Seow En Hau was in Primary 6 last year, his bag was 9kg. His mother, education centre manager Tiffany Liew, says he was in a top class in a school in central Singapore and had "lots of supplementary lessons".
Ms Liew, 40, adds: "Teachers advised them to keep their books in the locker. But they couldn't because they needed them for homework or revision."
His bag list: Water bottle, pencil case, mathematics geometry set, electronic Chinese translator, electronic English dictionary, calculator, four textbooks (one per subject), four workbooks (one per subject), about five exercise books, and a "heavy and thick clear folder to hold assigned worksheets, completed worksheets or worksheets for teachers to mark".
Says Ms Liew: "When I tried to take out what I could - the gadgets - the bag was just 500g lighter."
En Hau and a "few of his Primary 6 classmates" have scoliosis, she adds.
Indeed, some parents SundayLife! spoke to are convinced that the heavy bags their children lug around lead to backaches or, worse, scoliosis or a curved spine.
But doctors say there is no evidence linking heavy bags to scoliosis.
Dr Kevin Lim, senior consultant of the department of orthopaedic surgery at KK Women's and Children's Hospital, says there is no study on the long-term effects of children carrying heavy school bags.
He explains: "A child may start to complain of backache or back pain once they start school. Almost always, the pain is not ascribed to a heavy school bag - a recent injury or overuse from sports or training is more usual - but concerned parents ask whether (a heavy bag) could be the cause."
KKH sees an average of about 60 to 100 new cases of children with backaches each year.
The National University Hospital (NUH) typically sees children from 11 to 14 years old with backaches, likely because of a growth spurt at this period, says Ms Karen Yap, 31, senior physiotherapist of the department of rehabilitation.
Muscles and bones must cope with physical changes during this spurt.
Ms Yap adds: "The heavy load may be too much for some children to handle during this period."
Last year, the hospital had one referral case every fortnight. Five years ago, it was one referral a month, NUH says.
Father of three Sebastian Yiang says his oldest child, Naomi, 11, has had headaches and backaches since Primary 1 - an ailment that he believes is related to her heavy school bag.
Mr Yiang, a 43-year-old product marketing manager at an IT firm, takes Naomi and son Nathan, nine, for regular chiropractic sessions, which he says helps to relieve their back pains.
His suggestion is for schools to let their pupils do five-minute stretching exercises every third period or so. He believes that toned and stronger muscles alleviate pains.
More importantly, schools should restructure timetables towards dedicated subject days, says Mr Yiang.
However, Principal Foo says: "Different teachers need to teach subjects across different levels. It will be complicated for such planning schoolwide."
Packing light requires "discipline", he adds.
Housewife Joanne Cheong, 37, agrees with him - to an extent.
She says: "Sometimes it's the teacher's fault. Sometimes it's how the kids pack."
It was wrong of a teacher to ask her oldest child Rachel, then nine and in Primary 4, to pack several issues of a subscription publication to school every day "just so she could refer to any issue when she wanted to that day". Rachel is now 11.
But Ms Cheong admits that her younger two children - Reanne, seven, and Isaac, six - sometimes carry two or three story books when only one is necessary.
She feels the onus is on parents to check.
Says Ms Cheong: "I sling the bags of the younger ones on my shoulder every day in the morning before they go to school to make sure they don't overpack."
How do you help lighten your children's school bags? Write to email@example.com
Lighten the load
Your child should not lean forward when he is walking. If he is, it means the backpack is too heavy.
Get him to clean out his backpack once a week so unnecessary items are not left inside.
The following steps should help reduce the load on the spine and shoulder muscles.
Pack the biggest and heaviest objects in the bag first. If the bag has internal elastic bands, use these to strap the heavy items closer together and towards the body.
Fill the compartments so the load is evenly distributed throughout the backpack and the items do not shift during movement.
Always use both straps together (one on each shoulder). Dangling the bag from one shoulder (and usually the same shoulder) will cause an uneven load on the spine.
Adjust the straps until the bag's base rests on the pelvis. If there is a pelvis strap, snap it on snugly.
Carry only one other item separately - for example, a water bottle or an art supplies bag.
Both hands should be free to hold support (such as staircase railings) and to allow balance and break a fall.
Source: Ms Karen Yap, senior physiotherapist, department of rehabilitation, National University Hospital
This story was first published in The Straits Times on Jan 12, 2014
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