As they grow, the quality of your children's vision is crucial for their development and learning, so it's important to look after their eye health. Spotting any problems early can make a lasting difference to their progress both socially and academically.
How to spot potential problems
It's not always easy to tell if your child has something wrong with their eyes, but there are signs and symptoms you can look out for. These include:
- Sitting too close to the TV or holding a book too close
- Frequently rubbing their eyes
- Sensitivity to light
- One of their eyes appearing to drift inwards or outwards
- Short attention span for their age
If you notice your child has any of these symptoms, see your doctor or optician for advice. If necessary, they could then be referred to see an ophthalmologist (an eye specialist).
What are the most common eye problems in children?
At around six weeks old, a baby's eyes should become permanently aligned. If this doesn't happen and the eyes appear to be looking in different directions, it's called a squint. Most squints in children develop before the age of four, although they can appear later.
This generally occurs because of an imbalance in the eye muscles (strabismus) and can also be associated with other vision issues such as long or short sightedness.
If you notice this in your child, see your optician, who will refer you to an ophthalmologist. It's important to get a squint treated as quickly as possible, otherwise vision in the affected eye will not develop normally.
Your child may have to wear a patch over the strong eye to improve the vision and function of the weaker eye. This type of treatment in a young child can be effective within four to five months.
If your child is older, they may be given simple exercises to do to help strengthen the muscles. They may also be required to wear glasses or even have surgery to correct the muscle imbalance, depending on the severity of the problem.
Lazy eye (or amblyopia) occurs when one eye is unable to build a strong link to the brain. This causes the vision to be blurred in the affected eye, with a reliance on the 'good' eye.
Lazy eye is quite difficult to spot, but in some cases you might notice one eye looks different from the other.
There may be a problem with the amount of light entering the eye, such as a cataract blocking the pathway of light. If so, treatment will be needed to remove the blockage.
If there's a lack of focus in the eye, it should first be corrected by wearing glasses, which often helps correct a squint as well.
The child is then encouraged to use the affected eye again. This can be done by covering the stronger eye with an eye patch.
It's easier to treat a lazy eye before the age of six. Therefore, it's recommended that all children have their eyes tested before they go to school and at regular intervals after that so these problems can be picked up and treated as soon as possible.
This is an inability to see any colour, and it's very rare. What's more common is colour vision deficiency. This is a difficulty in identifying and distinguishing between certain colours – generally red, yellow and green.
In most cases, colour vision deficiency is hereditary and is present from birth, although it can develop later in life. It's rarely a sign of anything serious and most people get used to it.
If you have any concerns about your child's ability to see colours, it's best to get them tested. If they do have the condition, it may help to inform their school, so that learning materials can be adapted accordingly.
Also known as myopia, this is a common eye condition that causes distant objects to appear blurred, while close objects can be seen clearly. The condition generally starts between the ages of six and 13, but can develop in very young children.
It usually occurs when the light doesn't focus on the light-sensitive tissue (retina) at the back of the eye properly. Instead, the light rays focus just in front of the retina, resulting in distant objects appearing blurred.
It's not exactly clear why this happens, but the condition often runs in families.
Signs that your child may be short-sighted can include:
- Needing to sit near the front of the class at school because they find it difficult to read the board
- Sitting close to the TV
- Complaining of headaches or tired eyes
- Regularly rubbing their eyes
If you think your child may be short-sighted, you should book an eye test. The condition can easily be treated by wearing corrective lenses to help the eyes focus on distant objects.
Get them tested
The best way to check your child's eye health is to have their eyes tested regularly.
All newborn babies in the UK have an eye test in the first days of life, to check for any obvious physical problems.
They are then tested at six to eight weeks old, to check for problems that may not have been obvious at birth.
Children should have an eye test again before they start school, usually around the age of three or four. After that, it's recommended that children have their eyes tested at least every two years. Eye tests are free for all children under 16 years old and those under 19 years old who are in full-time education.
You can also help keep your kids' eyes healthy by making sure they:
- Eat a balanced and varied diet packed with eye-friendly nutrients such as those in leafy green vegetables, tomatoes, grapes, blueberries, chicken, fish, eggs and wholegrains
- Get moving and get outside. Kids who are active and have a healthy body weight reduce their risk of developing conditions like diabetes that can lead to vision problems like shortsightedness
- Never look directly at the sun
- Protect their eyes by providing sunglasses that carry the CE: UV 400 or the British Standard BS EN 1836:2005
If you have any concerns about your child's eye health at any age, always speak to your Doctor or optician for advice.