National Child Health Day is observed every year on the first Monday in October to help educate parents, teachers, coaches, and caregivers on the unique health care needs of kids of all ages. We know the significance of yearly pediatric exams, inoculation against childhood diseases, and routine dental care. Your child’s eye and vision heath should be accorded the same attention and importance. Childhood is a crucial time for developing healthy vision and sometimes symptoms of eye problems in kids are so subtle they go unnoticed. The American Optometric Association (AOA) recommends your child have comprehensive eye exams performed by an optometrist at 6 months of age, 3 years, 5 years, and annually thereafter during your kid’s school years. Diagnosing and treating conditions early while your child’s vision is still developing and growing can help ensure your kid has the best vision now and for the rest of his or her life.
Your baby’s first eye screening should be done by your pediatrician after birth and each time he or she has a wellness visit during their first year of life. These screenings will check the structures of the eye and look for any evidence of abnormality, inability to focus, eye infection, or disease. Problems with babies’ eyesight are rare, but if any issues are identified, you should schedule an appointment with an optometrist for further diagnosis. From birth to 2 years, your baby’s vision system develops rapidly, from being mostly blurry to learning the basics of hand-eye and body-eye coordination, being able to follow objects with their eyes, reaching and grabbing things they see, and depth perception. Your child’s first comprehensive eye exam should be performed at 6 months by an optometrist. A comprehensive exam is much more than a screening; your optometrist will discuss the baby’s medical history with you as well as talk with you about any family history of childhood eye disease or problems. This exam will evaluate the baby’s eye muscles and the internal and external structures of the eyes, as well as rule out abnormal amounts of myopia (nearsightedness), or hyperopia (farsightedness). The doctor will also check how your baby is focusing, and whether or not the baby’s eyes are moving together correctly.
80% of all learning – not just in school – comes from what your child sees. During the preschool years, from about two to five, kids learn to do more complex tasks like stacking blocks, assembling puzzle pieces, running, playing with others, drawing, coloring, and cutting and pasting. Their visual system is still developing and learning to process more of what they see and their hand-eye and body-eye coordination becomes better. Your child should have a comprehensive eye exam around age 3 so your optometrist can ensure your kid’s eyes and vision are developing normally and check for any instance of strabismus, amblyopia (lazy eye), myopia, or hyperopia. Then at age 5, kids should have another comprehensive eye exam prior to entering school. This will establish a baseline and your optometrist can monitor your child’s vision health each year to catch any changes or issues early.
Many parents and caregivers rely on school vision screenings to detect eye health issues with their children; however, school vision screenings are not comprehensive exams. In fact, the AOA states an average vision screening only provides about 4% of the testing that a comprehensive exam does, and up to 75% of screenings miss vision problems in children. Even if a vision problem is diagnosed during a screening, over 60% of those children never see an optometrist for a full diagnosis and treatment. During their school years, children begin learning to read from books and the blackboard, write, work with computer screens, and participate in gym class and sports as part of their daily routine. As they get older, reading comprehension and attention span become more important to kids’ ability to excel academically, and hand-eye and body-eye coordination, judging distances, and focus are important to play sports well and interact socially. Visual problems during school years can delay your child’s development in many ways so it is important to never miss his or her annual eye exam.
Eye disease and conditions such as nearsightedness and farsightedness are not the only dangers to your child’s vision. A leading cause of blindness among children in the United States is injuries to the eyes. Thousands of children visit emergency rooms every year for eye injuries from toys, household items, and sports-related injuries, some of which cause permanent vision loss or even blindness. 90% of those injuries are avoidable with supervision and prevention.
- Make sure toys are not broken and are in working order, are age appropriate for your child, and children have proper supervision with paint guns, air guns, and other projectile toys;
- Glasses or sunglasses are not good eye protection while playing sports. Before your kid starts a sports program, take him or her to your optometrist for protective eyewear specifically designed for your kid’s sport;
- Supervise kids playing with glue, scissors, working on craft projects, science kits, or using household products as these items can cause chemical burns or injuries to the eyes. Watch young children with lawn mowers, weed eaters, rakes, shovels, and other yard implements and make sure all kids wear safety glasses when doing yard work.
Additionally, encourage healthy screen habits. Don’t allow your kids to spend hours per day looking at TVs, computers, laptops, tablets, cell phones, or gaming consoles. See your optometrist for special glasses that help filter the light from the screens and reduce glare. Make sure your child shuts down all screens at least one to two hours before bedtime to help foster healthy sleep habits.
Kids should play outside one to two hours daily. This is not only physically healthy, but it helps your kid’s eyes and vision develop correctly by exercising their eye muscles as they change their focus between near and far objects. While engaging in activities outside, be sure your child has well-fitting sunglasses that block 99% – 100% of UV-A and UV-B rays. UV rays can damage your kid’s eyes and long-term exposure can lead to cataracts, macular degeneration, or even skin cancer around the eyelids. It is important to begin protecting your child’s sight early by visiting his or her optometrist and getting high-quality sunglasses that fit your child’s face and lifestyle.
Proper vision care for kids begins at birth and continues to adulthood. Uncorrected vision problems can lead to poor reading comprehension, inadequate attention and focus on schoolwork, and can affect coordination and depth perception, which can adversely affect your child’s ability to play sports and socially interact. Poor education and social skills can affect future employment and quality of life. We want what is best for our kids and one of the most valuable things you can do is to put an emphasis on their vision health and safety. Good vision is the foundation for a healthy, well-lived life, so schedule an eye exam for your child today!