When it comes to your child’s health, it seems like there are hundreds of recommendations and doctors to visit—but when should your child begin to see an eye doctor?
The Eyes and Human Development
As noted before, we know there are many different recommendations out there. With our friend Dr. Google it can be hard to determine what exactly is the best schedule to follow and when to go to what doctor.
However, when you think about it more closely, proper eye health is required for good vision—if vision is poor it can make life quite difficult.
If your child has poor eyesight from birth—they likely will not be able to recognize that his or her vision is poor, as it is what they have always known. He or she will not be able to tell you that they cannot see well, but instead will think that is simply how the world looks.
Poor vision, therefore, can cause a child to struggle in more aspects in life than just school work. Thus, it is important to have a first eye exam prior to entering school-aged years.
Think about a toddler learning to walk. If he or she cannot see where they are going—this toddler may be afraid to walk around and ultimately come to avoid the task. The same can be applied to other aspects of life as well. If a young child cannot see effectively, they may not be able to recognize family members, feed themselves, play with toys, etc.
Essentially, your baby could be trying to learn how to encounter the world for the first time through extreme blur—this would be a difficult task for anyone to overcome, let alone a baby! This could prolong their developmental milestone track and cause parental stress and worry.
While you might think the most appropriate doctor to see is a developmental therapist, the solution could be as simple as your baby just needing a pair of glasses.
Pediatricians and Eye Exams
A common statement heard from many parents is that they take their children regularly to see pediatricians and the pediatrician performs a vision screening—so why is it recommended to take my child to see an eye doctor?
This is a very fair question. Pediatricians go through schooling to learn about the human body in its entirety. They go through medical school first, and then at least three additional years of schooling to specialize in patient care for the younger population.
The human body is extremely complex with many different moving parts that must be evaluated within a 20 minute exam slot. Thus, when your child sees a pediatrician, the doctor is doing a simple screening looking for major eye health problems (cancers, malformations, obvious eye turns, infections, etc.), and then moving on to the next test.
This of course is not to say that pediatricians are not doing enough—they are experts in children medical care of course! However, the eye is so complex that doctors of optometry spend 4 years studying just eyes, and look at so much more than just a glasses prescription! Why not leave the vision examination to a specialist who is trained to pick up on subtleties and has the proper equipment to conduct various tests specific solely to the eyes?
What do Eye Doctors do Special During Pediatric Eye Exams?
Eye doctors not only have more advanced and specialized equipment to evaluate children’s eyes, but they also go through special schooling to assess children’s eyes.
An infant eye exam begins with your typical history questions—asking about length of pregnancy, complications that occurred during birth, and if applicable, developmental milestones. It is important to come prepared with this information as this information is crucial for eye development timelines and can lead your eye doctor to watch more closely for subtle signs and changes in your baby’s eyes.
For example, a baby that was born prior to 37 weeks (pre-mature) is at higher risk for eye turns (called strabismus), refractive errors (i.e. will need correctional glasses), and other eye health problems. This is not absolute—so do not panic reading this! It is just another reason as to why it is important to visit an eye doctor early in life rather than waiting until school-aged years.
After the history, your eye doctor will look at your child’s eye alignment to evaluate if he or she has an eye turn and ensure the eye muscles are working properly.
Next, the eye doctor will look at your child’s light reflex. This is how eye doctors can look into a patient’s eyes and determine if he or she needs a glasses prescription without verbal feedback.
The eye doctor will hold some lenses in front of your child’s eyes while shining a light into them quickly. The light is reflected off the back surface of the eye. With lenses, the eye doctor is able to neutralize this light reflex to come up with the appropriate glasses prescription (if needed).
The last major test during an eye exam is dilation. Dilation is important because it allows the doctor to use a special magnifying lens to look into the back structures of the eye and ensure everything is healthy and has developed properly.
It is important to catch any disease early, while it may be unlikely for a major problem to be uncovered in your child, it is always better to be safe when it comes to your child’s health.
What are Abnormalities Eye Doctors May Find During the Eye Exam?
A large majority of children will get the all-clear and be perfectly healthy with no treatment necessary from their first eye exam. Your eye doctor will then give you an updated timeframe and likely will not need to see your child again until reaching the school-aged years, unless another concern comes up in the meantime.
There are, however, several different abnormalities that may be detected during your child’s initial eye exam—initiating treatment for said abnormalities will be a lifechanging improvement for your child.
One such abnormality could be the need for glasses. A child who cannot see well may lash out, anger easily, or appear to be developmentally delayed. This could simply be out of frustration due to seeing the world as a blurry mess.
Many children need glasses—especially in today’s world with a drastic rise in myopia (near-sightedness). If your child needs glasses it is nothing to panic about, and there are many great options for flexible, comfortable glasses even for babies!
Another reason as to why eye exams are crucial for your young ones is due to a problem called amblyopia. In short, amblyopia is caused by the brain “shutting off” one eye. It can be caused from one eye seeing well and the other eye seeing poorly, an eye turn, or a structural abnormality such as an excessively droopy eyelid or trauma.
The crucial years for eye development range from birth to about 7 years of age. During this time, if amblyopia is caught, there is a much better likelihood of treatment working to “turn the eye back on” and prevent permanent decreased vision in the problem eye.
Amblyopia can be tricky to detect because your child might appear to see well, as their good eye is taking lead and allowing them to see “alright”. Eye doctors are trained to watch very closely for this problem; the earlier it is caught the better the outcome is for your child.
Other problems eye doctors watch for are eye turns, cancers, glaucoma, and other retinal diseases (the retina is the back most structure of the eye responsible for transmitting vision from the eye to the brain).
At What Age is the Eye Exam Recommended for my Child?
A safe recommendation is for your child to have his or her first eye exam around 6 months of age. If the eye doctor sees a concern it is easy to initiate treatment at that time, or if it is something that should be monitored they may recommend you bring your child back in to see them every year.
If everything looks good at this initial visit, your doctor will likely recommend you return for your child’s next visit when they get closer to starting school—around the age of 4-5 years.
Once reaching school-age, it is recommended to bring your child in for an eye exam yearly. This is to watch for changes and initiate any necessary treatment as early as possible to prevent the issue from progressing.
Is There Anything I Should Watch for in my Child Before the Eye Exam?
As a parent we know you have many concerns and are quite busy. However, the following is a list of signs that indicate you should make an appointment with your local eye doctor:
- Excessive squinting
- Inability to focus on a target (toy, bottle, face, etc.)
- Visible eye turn (can be constant or only seen sometimes)
- Excessively droopy eyelids
- If the black part of your child’s eye appears white (especially in pictures)
If you notice one or more of these signs in your child, it does not necessarily mean something is wrong, but could be a sign of something more serious going on. Your local eye doctor would be more than happy to see your little-one and make sure he or she is setup to live their happiest, most-successful life.