About a year ago, Toronto mom Shira Blum* finally decided to do something about her seven-year-old daughter’s gait. “Yael had always walked a little funny, which is kind of normal for a toddler, but it didn’t go away,” says Blum, who describes her daughter’s feet as being slightly turned in. This created tightness in Yael’s hips and affected her movement, posture and even the way she danced.
Despite Yael’s doctor being unconcerned, Blum took Yael to her own chiropractor, who worked on her feet, hips and knees. It helped a bit, but she says the real magic was an appointment with a rolfer. (Rolfing is often described as a type of deep-tissue massage and body manipulation; it’s considered alternative medicine and its benefits are scientifically unproven.) “I was amazed,” she says. “After just one session, she was standing more upright and her feet were straighter versus turned in.”
Even if your kid doesn’t show any signs of unusual gait or excessive slouching, you should still keep an eye on their overall posture and teach them “spinal hygiene” to keep their backs happy in the long term. Here are some tips.
1. Find a backpack that fits
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, backpacks that are too heavy or are worn incorrectly can cause muscle and joint injury, along with back, neck and shoulder pain. Look for a pack with wide, padded shoulder straps and a waist strap to help with weight distribution. Encourage your child to wear their backpack on both shoulders rather than throwing them over just one shoulder, which can lead to muscle strain, numbness and tingling.
A good rule of thumb is that a full backpack shouldn’t exceed 15 percent of your kid’s weight. Rolling backpacks can reduce strain if your kid is carrying an extra-heavy load, but they can be hard to use on stairs and in crowded hallways.
2. Set the stage for good posture at home
A proper desk set-up encourages healthy alignment and should include a comfortable chair and space for a computer. Try to avoid your kid using a laptop on their bed or in their lap. “Looking down all the time puts a lot of strain on the neck,” says Toronto chiropractor Ann Mussett. This can cause pain and inflammation in the short term, and possibly impact how kids’ bodies develop and grow over time.
3. Teach them how to sit properly
While it’s tempting to tell our hunched-over kids to “sit up straight,” this isn’t a particularly helpful approach, says certified rolfer Allison Talacko, because they’ll end up sitting in a way that’s unnaturally rigid. Instead, she suggests teaching your child to sit on their “sits bones”– the bony protrusions you can feel if you slide your hand under your butt while sitting. “Once you’re centred on your sits bones, you can move back and forth, you can roll around on them—your whole body can start to organize itself around a supportive base.” Talacko often uses the image of a penguin to explain it to kids: “I tell them to pretend they have little penguin tails and flip them back and find their sits bones,” she says.
4. Switch up their position regularly
More important than your child’s posture at any given time is how long they are sustaining it. “So if you’re sitting in a funny position, make sure you’re changing it all the time,” says Mussett, who suggests using a 30-minute timer if this is an issue in your home. You could also consider yoga balls, which Blum recently bought for her daughters for when they’re watching TV. “You can’t actually slouch on them,” she says. “They force you to sit properly.”
5. Fight bad posture with movement
One of the biggest risks to posture is lack of physical activity, with the correlation between good posture and activity well documented. “Kids who exercise tend to have better posture, more upright versus slumped,” says Mussett. “So just getting your kids moving is key.”
Talacko uses play and imagery to encourage movement, instructing kids to move like a tree—for example, by having them root from below, and lengthen and grow, and then relax. She also gets them to pretend their chin is a crayon and has them “draw” on the ceiling. “Drawing all the colours of the rainbow, for example—but looking up, because they’re always looking down,” she says. And she gets them to view their feet like wheels of a car. “I ask them, ‘How well does a car move if the wheels are pointing out?’ Just having them focus on the wheels of their feet moving forward, and feeling all their toes, feeling their heels,” is helpful, she says.
6. Make it a family affair
Talacko suggests having a dance party or a movement party on the rug. “Pretend you’re a cat or a tiger—because they move through their rib cage,” she says. Creating TikToks and family yoga are also great ways to invite movement: Poses like cat-cow create fluidity in the spine, while downward dog relieves back pain and strengthens the abdominal muscles that help support the spine.
Says Mussett: “Good spinal hygiene, exercise, movement and breathing—if you put those four things into your kid’s life while they’re young, they’ll take them into their teen years and beyond.”
*Name has been changed