This is a guest post by Stephanie Cairns, a registered Optometrist. Thanks for this awesome reminder about checking children’s eye health!
Back in July I promised Babyfoote a blog about children’s eyecare following a conversation where I suggested her nearly 4 year old should join her for the long overdue eye examination I’d recommended for herself due to headaches. Then the summer holidays and a house move came along and all thoughts of extra-curricula work (apart from while in the testroom) went from my head.
Then, along with many parents, I have been standing watching my youngest heading to school for afternoons this week with a mix of excitement and sadness; because it’s the end of an era and also because it means I now need to turn my hand back to work after the summer.
I’m a mum of two school-aged kids and an Optometrist in the North East of England. Both my kids have been having regular eye examinations since they were around 2 ½ but I know this is no way the norm. It’s very common for people to present for their first ever eye examination well into their 30’s and 40’s. Usually after putting it off and suffering from occasional headaches and maybe blurred vision for a while before feeling they ‘should see someone because they are having problems’.
With so much emphasis on preventive health care out there I’m always surprised people feel they have to ‘have a problem’ to come in. Your eyes are the window to your general health and one of the primary senses we use for learning. I know watching the children crowding into school that a large proportion will have visited their dentist from around 6 months on yearly basis (often even before they have teeth) this is because it told you to in their red baby record book but a far fewer number will have had an eye test yet.
Children especially don’t realise that what they are seeing and experiencing is not the same as other people. Many parents aren’t aware that their child could have any issues with their eyes if they can see the airplane in the sky, name their colours correctly and are doing ‘ok’ at school.
The retina (which collects our visual information and sends it via the Optic nerve to the brain) continues to develop until around age 8. Both eyes develop separately and the retina only fully develops if the image focused on it from the front of the eye (cornea and lens) is sharp. Anything that interferes with this, such at undetected long-sight or a turn in one eye, will lead to one or both eyes not reaching their full potential.
Undetected vision and eye problems can cause real problems for children in school and socially. A recent study of four and five year olds published in the British Medical Journal found those children who struggle to see small detail (and to read the small letters on the standard letter chart at 6 meters) had significantly reduced literacy development even when other factors – such as cognitive skills and background – are taken into account. While some older children will report symptoms such as headaches, blurred vision, poor reading level, difficulty concentrating in class and for homework, many do not. In the UK it’s estimated that one million children have an undiagnosed vision problem. This includes 20% of the school age population. Many of these can be corrected with a simple pair of glasses.
Regular eye examinations can pick up any initial problems and monitor changes over time as the child grows. In the UK everyone under 16 is entitled to a free NHS sight test (this continues to 19 if in full time education). Both the Association of Optometrists and College of Optometrists recommend children have their first sight test aged 3 and then at least every 2 years from then on.
Watch this video to see what happens during a child’s eye care check:
Adults are also advised to have their eyes examined every 2 years as many health checks and vision problems can develop over time as we age. All possible health and vision problems are easier to manage and correct if found earlier than later and often further symptoms of headaches and eyestrain can be elevated if corrected early.
How do I know if my child has an eye problem?
Some eye conditions do not display any signs or symptoms, so the only way to know for sure is to take your child for a sight test.
Signs which may show there is a problem with a child’s sight include:
- An eye appearing to drift inwards or outwards
- Difficulty concentrating
- Frequent eye rubbing
- Behavioural problems
- Sitting too close to the television
Useful to Know
- Children with a family history of a turn in one eye/lazy eye/strong glasses, who were born premature or have learning disabilities all have a greater chance of vision problems and the earlier they are corrected the less likely it will affect their ability to learn.
- Take child with you to your eye examinations or contact lens checks to help get them familiar with the environment
- Your child doesn’t need to be able to read to have their eyes examined.
- If you’re worried they won’t be able to manage, then practice sitting still and covering one of their eyes with one hand or pirate patch, then the other.
- Don’t assume that because they passed the ‘vision screening check’ in reception they don’t need an eye examination. This only checks a very small number of possible issues that affect the initial development of the eye. Other problems that can affect fluency of reading and concentration can remain undetected without a full sight test.
- Take your child back to the Optometrist when you are sent a recall letter or before if you or school is concerned because of headaches, blurred vision or tiredness.
- If glasses are required to help your child’s eye development encourage them to wear them as much as possible and follow your Optometrist’s recommendation for which type of tasks they are for. It is not uncommon for children/teenagers to feel they and ‘see’ without them so stop wearing them leading to possible increased symptoms as they get older. However if your child says things are now blurry in them take them along for an earlier sight test, don’t just allow them to stop without consulting your optometrist. Changes in glasses prescriptions are easier to adapt to if don’t in smaller steps rather than big ones.
Tips for maintaining good eye health from childhood and beyond:
- regular sight tests throughout life.
- plenty of outdoor time away from concentrated close up tasks such as reading and electronic screens. Studies show two hours of outdoor activity a day is ideal for healthy eyes
- handheld devices should be used at arms length and with regular breaks.
- Include green leafy vegetables and oily fish in your weekly diet
- drink plenty of fluids
- uses sunglasses with a good UV rating with the ‘CE’ quality mark and the British Standard BS EN 1836:2005
What can I do if I don’t want my child to wear glasses?
If you’re reluctant for your child to wear glasses, it’s important to remember that some children need a visual correction in order for their vision to develop normally and to achieve their full potential. The good news is, there is now a much wider range of attractive frames to choose from and less stigma attached to wearing glasses. Some children may even be disappointed when told they don’t need to wear glasses.
Many children are also suitable for contact lenses; this is particularly helpful for children who take part in regular sports activities and can be successfully worn from an earlier age than you might expect. Ask your optometrist whether contact lenses would be suitable for your child.
Find out more about eye health on the College of Optometrists’ website at www.lookafteryoureyes.org.
About the author:
Mrs S.Cairns member of both the Association of Optometrist and College of Optometrist. GOC registered since 2001. 01-19235