Why do children need an eye examination?
Like every other part of the body, the eyes grow and change quickly in the first few years of life. Regular eye examinations are important to make sure that the child's eyes and vision are developing normally. It is also important for the doctor to find any problems, such as lazy eye or cataracts, as early as possible, so they can be treated before any damage is done to the child's vision.
When should children have an eye examination?
The American Academy of Ophthalmology (the medical society for eye doctors) recommends that children have eye examinations at these intervals:
- Once before the child is 3 months old.
- Once between the ages of 6 months and 1 year.
- Once at about 3 years of age.
- Once at about 5 years of age.
What happens in a child's eye examination?
The eye examination will vary depending on the age of the child.
Newborn babies will be examined to make sure each part of the eye has developed without any problems. There is also a special instrument that shines light all the way to the back of the eye. The doctor will look at the structures inside the eye and also check to make sure that nothing is blocking light from entering the eye. The way the eyes move will also be checked.
The examination for children between 6 months and 1 year old is similar. It is performed to make sure that the eyes are still developing without any problems.
When the child is 3 years old, it is usually possible to test visual acuity for the first time. Visual acuity is the “sharpness” of vision. It is what is measured by the familiar eye chart in the doctor's office. Although 3-year-olds might not be ready to read the letters of a chart yet, there are other ways to test visual acuity. The chart might have shapes, for example, or pictures of objects that the child can name.
The examination will also include special tests to make sure that each eye can move in the correct way. This is also an important time to check the alignment of the eyes. Both eyes should work together in order to give the best vision possible.
The examination at about age 5 will be similar. Most children will be able to cooperate better in the testing, so this examination will reveal more about how the eyes and vision are working. It is especially important to make sure the child can see well before starting school.
What kinds of problems is the doctor looking for?
The examinations performed before age 3 are mainly to make sure the structures of the eye are healthy. The examiner will look for anything that seems too small, too large, or the wrong shape. Some parts of the eye should be clear to let light pass through, and other parts should be a certain color. If any of these things appear unusual, more tests will be performed to find out if there is a problem.
Starting when the child is 3 years old, the examinations will also test the function of the eyes. Visual acuity tests are important to make sure both eyes can focus well. If not, it might be necessary for the child to get glasses.
Young children don't read or go to school - why would they need glasses?
Usually, the eyes and the part of the brain involved in eyesight develop together as a child grows. Both must be working well, however, in order for the whole visual system to develop. If the eyes are out of focus, they will not send the right kinds of signals to the brain. This can cause headaches and eye strain. It might even lead to more serious vision problems.
It is especially bad if one eye can focus much better than the other. The brain might start to ignore the signals from the eye that is out of focus. This can actually cause the eye to stop developing. If it is not corrected, the loss of vision in the eye can become permanent.
The medical term for this condition is amblyopia, and it is known more commonly as “lazy eye.” It can happen because one eye is out of focus or because the eyes are not moving together in the usual way.
When the eyes do not align and move together well, the condition is called strabismus. One of the most important reasons to examine a child's eyes is to check for strabismus. It is actually hard to notice whether a child's eyes are aligned and moving together well. That is why it is important to have children's eyes examined regularly by a doctor.
Not only can strabismus harm vision, it could also be a sign of some other health problem. Sometimes it is necessary to treat the other problem in order to correct the strabismus. In other cases, the strabismus must be corrected by a surgical procedure to align the eyes.
The procedures used to correct strabismus are very successful, especially when they are performed early in life. The longer strabismus goes uncorrected, however, the more likely it is that vision will be lost. That is why it is important to follow the schedule for routine children's eye examinations, even if there are no obvious problems.