Eye Exams for Children
As a parent, you may wonder whether your child has a vision problem or when eye exams should be scheduled.
Eye exams for children are extremely important. Experts say 5 percent-10 percent of pre-schoolers and 25 percent of school-aged children have vision problems. Early identification of a child’s vision problem is crucial because, if left untreated, some childhood vision problems can cause permanent vision loss.
Experts say that 80% of what your child learns in school is presented visually. Undetected vision problems can put them at a significant disadvantage. Be sure to schedule a complete eye exam for your child prior to the start of school.
Scheduling Your Child’s Eye Exam
Your family doctor or pediatrician likely will be the first medical professional to examine your child’s eyes. If eye problems are suspected during routine physical examinations, a referral might be made to an ophthalmologist or optometrist for further evaluation. Eye doctors have specific equipment and training to help them detect and diagnose potential vision problems.
When scheduling an eye exam, choose a time when your child is usually alert and happy. Specifics of how eye exams are conducted depend on your child’s age, but an exam generally will involve a case history, vision testing, determination of whether eyeglasses are needed, testing of eye alignment, an eye health examination and a consultation with you regarding the findings.
After you’ve made the appointment, you will be given a case history form when you check in at the doctor’s office. The form will inquire about your child’s medical history, including current medications and past or present allergies.
Be sure to tell your eye doctor if your child has a history of prematurity, has delayed motor development, engages in frequent eye rubbing, blinks excessively, fails to maintain eye contact, cannot seem to maintain a gaze (fixation) while looking at objects, has poor eye tracking skills or has failed a pediatrician or pre-school vision screening.
Your eye doctor will also want to know about previous ocular diagnoses and treatments involving your child, such as possible surgeries and glasses or contact lens wear. Be sure you inform your eye doctor if there is a family history of eye problems requiring vision correction, such as nearsightedness or farsightedness, misaligned eyes (strabismus) or amblyopia (“lazy eye”).
Frequently Asked Questions
When should children have their eyes examined?
According to the American Optometric Association (AOA), infants should have their first comprehensive eye exam at 6 months of age. Children then should receive additional eye exams at 3 years of age, and just before they enter kindergarten or the first grade at about age 5 or 6.
For school-aged children, the AOA recommends an eye exam every two years if no vision correction is required. Children who need eyeglasses or contact lenses should be examined annually or according to their eye doctor’s recommendations.
Early eye exams also are important because children need the following basic visual skills for learning:
- Near vision
- Distance vision
- Eye teaming (binocularity) skills
- Eye movement skills
- Focusing skills
- Peripheral awareness
- Eye/hand coordination
Because of the importance of good vision for learning, some states require an eye exam for all children entering school for the first time.
How often should children have their eyes examined?
According to the American Optometric Association (AOA), infants should have their first comprehensive eye exam at 6 months of age. After that, kids should have routine eye exams at age 3 and again at age 5 or 6 (just before they enter kindergarten or the first grade).
For school-aged children, the AOA recommends an eye exam every two years if no vision correction is needed. Children who need eyeglasses or contact lenses should be examined annually.
Eye testing for Pre-School Children
Pre-school children can have their eyes thoroughly tested even if they don’t yet know the alphabet or are too young or too shy to answer the doctor’s questions. Some common eye tests used specifically for young children include:
- LEA Symbols for young children are similar to regular eye tests using charts with letters, except that special symbols in these tests include an apple, house, square and circle.
- Retinoscopy is a test that involves shining a light into the eye to observing how it reflects from the retina (the light-sensitive inner lining of the back of the eye). This test helps eye doctors determine the child’s eyeglass prescription.
- Random Dot Stereopsis uses dot patterns to determine how well the two eyes work as a team.
Eye and Vision Problems that Affect Children
Besides looking for nearsightedness, farsightedness and astigmatism (refractive errors), your eye doctor will be examining your child’s eyes for signs of these eye and vision problems commonly found in young children:
- Amblyopia. Also commonly called “lazy eye,” this is decreased vision in one or both eyes despite the absence of any eye health problem or damage. Common causes of amblyopia include strabismus (see below) and a significant difference in the refractive errors of the two eyes. Treatment of amblyopia may include patching the dominant eye to strengthen the weaker eye.
- Strabismus. This is misalignment of the eyes, often caused by a congenital defect in the positioning or strength of muscles that are attached to the eye and which control eye positioning and movement. Left untreated, strabismus can cause amblyopia in the misaligned eye. Depending on its cause and severity, surgery may be required to treat strabismus.
- Convergence insufficiency. This is the inability to keep the eye comfortably aligned for reading and other near tasks. Convergence insufficiency can often be successfully treated with vision therapy, a specific program of eye exercises.
- Focusing problems. Children with focusing problems (also called accommodation problems) may have trouble changing focus from distance to near and back again (accommodative infacility) or have problems maintaining adequate focus for reading (accommodative insufficiency). These problems often can be successfully treated with vision therapy.
- Eye teaming problems. Many eye teaming (binocularity) problems are more subtle than strabismus. Deficiencies in eye teaming skills can cause problems with depth perception and coordination.
Are contact lenses a good choice for kids?
A common question many parents have about contact lenses and kids is: “When is my child old enough to wear contact lenses?”
Physically, your child’s eyes can tolerate contact lenses at a very young age. Some babies are fitted with contact lenses due to eye conditions present at birth. And in a recent study that involved fitting nearsighted children of ages 8-11 with one-day disposable contact lenses, 90% had no trouble applying or removing the contacts without assistance from their parents.
So the important question is whether or not your child is mature enough to insert, remove and take care of their contact lenses. How they handle other responsibilities at home will give you a clue. If your child has poor grooming habits and needs frequent reminders to perform everyday chores, they may not be ready for the responsibility of wearing and caring for contact lenses. But if they are conscientious and handle these things well, they may be excellent candidates for contact lens wear, regardless of their age.
What is vision therapy?
Vision therapy (also called vision training) is an individualized program of eye exercises and other methods to correct vision problems other than nearsightedness, farsightedness and astigmatism. Problems treated with vision therapy include amblyopia (‘lazy eye”), eye movement and alignment problems, focusing problems, and certain visual-perceptual disorders. Vision therapy is usually performed in an optometrist’s office, but most treatment plans also include daily vision exercises to be performed at home.
My 5-year-old daughter just had a vision screening at school and she passed. Does she still need an eye exam?
Yes. School vision screenings are designed to detect gross vision problems. But kids can pass a screening at school and still have vision problems that can affect their learning and school performance. A comprehensive eye exam by an optometrist can detect vision problems a school screening may miss. Also, a comprehensive eye exam includes an evaluation of your child’s eye health, which is not part of a school vision screening.
My 7-year-old son’s teacher thinks he has “convergence insufficiency.” What is this, and what can I do about it?
Convergence insufficiency (CI) is a common learning-related vision problem where a person’s eyes don’t stay comfortably aligned when they are reading or doing close work. For reading and other close-up tasks, our eyes need to be pointed slightly inward (converged). A person with convergence insufficiency has a tough time doing this, which leads to eyestrain, headaches, fatigue, blurred vision and reading problems. Usually, a program of vision therapy can effectively treat CI and reduce or eliminate these problems. Sometimes, special reading glasses can also help.
My son is 5 years old and has 20/40 vision in both eyes. Should I be concerned, or could this improve with time?
Usually, 5-year-olds can see 20/25 or better. But keep in mind that visual acuity testing is a subjective matter – during the test, your child is being asked to read smaller and smaller letters on a wall chart. Sometimes, kids give up at a certain line on the chart when they can actually read smaller letters. Other times, they may say they can’t read smaller letters because they want glasses. (Yes, this happens!) Also, if your son had his vision tested at a school screening (where there can be plenty of distractions), it’s a good idea to schedule a comprehensive eye exam to rule out nearsightedness, astigmatism or an eye health problem that may be keeping him from having better visual acuity.