This is Part 24 in a multi-week series of blogs focused on the ABC’s for Healthy Kids. Learn more at www.snohd.org/healthykids.
Top Three Take-Aways:
- Get children in for regular wellness checks that include vision screening. You should also take them for a full eye exam about once a year or as recommended by their doctor.
- Eye health is closely tied to overall health. Undiagnosed vision problems can create concerns for learning and development.
- Keep eyes healthy with a nutritious diet, plenty of sleep, clean hands, and protection from harsh light, sports injuries, or too much screen time.
Get those eyes checked
Like the rest of your child, their eyes are growing and developing quickly, especially when they are young.
The health of eyes is important. Finding out about any vision needs early on can avoid other concerns later, such as a child struggling with learning or coordination because they have a hard time seeing clearly.
The first thing to keep in mind as a parent or caregiver is that you are often in the best position to notice potential problems. If it seems like your child is struggling to see, squinting a lot, rubbing their eyes often, or complaining of headaches after reading or other schoolwork, it could be related to their vision. Bring any concerns up with your child’s pediatrician or family medical provider.
You likely already know if your family has a history of vision problems, or maybe you personally use glasses or other vision aids, which can be a signal to pay extra attention to your kids’ eyesight.
You should be taking children in for regular wellness exams. As part of that, their doctor or nurse will likely do a vision screening. You may remember these as looking across the exam room at a poster on the wall and identifying shapes or letters, with both eyes and then with one at a time.
If a vision screening suggests your child may not be seeing clearly, your doctor can recommend a full eye exam.
An eye exam is different from a vision screening. The screening can help notice if there is a problem, but not necessarily identify what the problem is or how to address it. An eye exam is done by a specialist – an optometrist or ophthalmologist. It might be easier to explain to little kids as seeing “the eye doctor.”
The eye doctor will do more thorough exam of the eye and can help diagnose problems and prescribe things like corrective lenses, typically glasses or maybe contacts for older children and young adults.
Even if your child has had a vision screening and there are no immediate concerns, it’s a good idea to take them in for an eye exam. Once a year is a good timeline when they are young, though it may be more often as their vision changes or if problems come up.
Eye exams can seem scary to children, but they are not invasive or painful. The exam may involve eye drops, which can be new and possibly alarming, so plan to be there and reassure them that everything is OK.
Insurance coverage for vision care can vary, so be sure to check with your insurance plan. Many cover routine eye exams and at least a portion of corrective lenses such as glasses.
If you have Apple Health (Medicaid), routine eye exams and eyeglasses are listed as part of the essential health benefits that plans cover.
It’s more than vision
There are multiple common vision concerns for children. Among them are nearsightedness and farsightedness, where they struggle to see things either far away or close them, respectively. They can also have astigmatism, where the eye’s lens is shaped differently than normal, or they can have blurred vision if light does not correctly focus on the light-sensitive tissue at the back of their eye.
Another potential condition occurs when there is a communication error between the brain and one eye that leads to a kid relying on the “better” eye and continues to weaken the eye with the poor connection. You may have heard this called lazy eye. Some children can have crossed eyes, where their eyes don’t focus on the same object at the same time. Another possible issue can happen in how the eyes work together when looking at something close up, often resulting in blurry or double vision. The Centers for Disease Control & Prevention has more information about some of these conditions.
If they have vision problems, children can run into additional problems with learning, confidence, and coordination. They may find it difficult to read books or displays for school. This can make it hard for them to keep up even if the subject itself is something they could otherwise master. If they feel like they just aren’t getting it or aren’t smart enough, it can erode their confidence and desire to learn.
It would be nice if any child who has a hard time seeing would simply come say “I can’t see that,” but depending on the condition and how severe, they may not realize that their vision is the issue. It can be hard to tell that something is a bit on the blurry or dark side if you’ve never seen it clear and bright. Don’t assume that your child would automatically say something if they have a vision problem, because they may not realize what it is.
You might need some back-up to help you and your child recognize potential vision issues. Talk to their teacher or childcare provider, who may notice things you wouldn’t, such as a struggle to switch between reading close-up to reading at a distance. And if you already know your child has a hard time seeing, make sure their teachers and childcare providers know what the concern is and how it is being addressed. For example, a teacher should know if your child needs their glasses on to see the whiteboard or to read a textbook.
Vision problems can cause headaches as children squint and struggle to focus. They can also lead to problems with coordination or perception, which can play out in sports, games, or other activities.
More tips for keeping eyes healthy
- Sunglasses in harsh light. Children should wear sunglasses when it is bright out. This includes sunny days but also overcast days where the light is intense, especially if they are near snow, water, or other surfaces that reflect light back up at them, too.
- Don’t overdo screen time. Too much time looking at computer, phone, or other backlit screens isn’t good for the long-term health of eyes. Try to limit screen time, and set aside windows of time without any screens at all. Before bed is a particularly good time to keep screens off and read a book, write, color, or tell stories instead.
- Get plenty of sleep. As with so many other aspects of health, sleep matters. Your eyes – like the rest of your body – need a break and time to rest and heal.
- Healthy diet. Don’t focus too much on so-called superfoods for vision. Carrots are great and have good vitamins for your eyes and the rest of you, but it’s really about a well-rounded diet with plenty of fruits and veggies. They have the nutrients young bodies need as their eyes develop.
- Wash hands and try to keep dirty hands away from eyes and face. Viruses, bacteria, allergens, or irritants can cause pink eye or other problems. One of the best ways to reduce this is to keep little hands clean by encouraging frequent and thorough handwashing. When kids do have dirty hands – which is unavoidable – try to help them keep those hands away from their eyes. If your child has irritated, discolored, or runny eyes, check with their doctor so you can treat a possible infection early.
- Safety gear when needed. Most eye injuries can be prevented. If your child plays sports, make sure they wear appropriate eye gear or other protective gear. Baseball and football helmets have faceguards. They should have their goggles or mask on for paintball. Put on snow or ski goggles for winter sports. Have underwater goggles for prolonged time in the pool, such as competitive swim. More information is available from the National Eye Institute.
Take some time now to check off the “X” in the ABCs for healthy kids. Have your children gotten in for a vision screening and eye exam?
Healthy eyes are about more than vision. Identifying concerns early can save a lot of headache later on.