Spotting Kids’ Eye Problems

It's not easy spotting eye problems in your child – often, eye problems can result in behaviour changes in young kids. Find out when your child should see an optometrist and what vision problem symptoms can look like.

Spotting Kids' Eye ProblemsWhen Debbie Dilon’s son Brayden refused to cooperate and look at the blackboard in his kindergarten classroom, his mom attributed the willfulness to his early-life challenges before adoption. So it was a surprise when a routine vision test at school concluded Brayden might need glasses. “I should have seen it,” says Dillon, who lives near Ottawa. “In hindsight, he spent a lot of time being frustrated because he couldn’t see.” An optometrist confirmed vision deficits in both eyes. Brayden, now six and starting Grade 1, has shown improvements in both mood and schoolwork since getting glasses.

Parents often don’t realize their kids can’t see properly, says Dr. Michelle Georgi, president of the Manitoba Association of Optometrists and chair of that organization’s Children’s Vision Committee. That’s why it’s important to have a developmental check-up with an optometrist as early as six months, a full exam by age three and follow-ups every one or two years so any problems can be corrected by the time your child starts school. “That’s when the wiring between the eyes and the brain is forming.”

looking for clues

A family history is a risk factor that kids might eventually need specs. “Both my husband and I wear glasses,” says Miranda Entwistle of Peterborough, Ont., whose sons, ages six and eight, both needed mild vision correction last year. Other obvious signs that your child may have a vision problem include squinting, holding reading material close, headaches, rubbing his eyes, turning or tilting her head to use one eye only or to avoid double vision, sitting too close to the TV or even a drop in school marks. “There’s also coordination,” says Dr. Georgi. “Does your child trip and fall a lot?” Clumsiness may be a sign that your child’s visual systems are not telling his muscles where to go, affecting his ability to balance.

Typically, a child won’t tell you she can’t see, because she doesn’t know what normal vision looks like, Dr. Georgi adds. And while school screening can provide helpful information, it doesn’t test all aspects of vision, such as colour-blindness or eye health and it shouldn’t take the place of a visit to the eye doctor. “It’s always best to have an exam to make sure.”

prepping for the exam

Entwistle says starting with an optometrist early meant her boys weren’t climbing the walls before appointments. “There was familiarity.” Plus, she would tell her boys: “They just look in your eyes. They don’t do anything to them.” “Really, don’t make a big deal of it,” agrees Dr. Georgi. “Say it’s going to be a positive experience: “We’re going to play some games, it’s going to be really cool.”

At this age, the most common eye disorders are amblyopia (what is often called “lazy eye”), strabismus (misaligned/cross-eyed), colour deficiency (colour-blindness — which is present in seven percent of all boys but less than one percent of girls) and hyperopia (far-sightedness). Dr. Georgi says most children are born a little far-sighted but outgrow it by age five. If they are farsighted enough to need glasses, they likely won’t outgrow it. Kids can also have myopia (nearsightedness) as they get older — it typically presents by about Grades 4 to 6. Astigmatism (blurred vision at all distances) itself is a common vision condition but, if mild, is not an issue.

getting glasses

What if it turns out your child does need glasses? “Most kids today are not as opposed to it as they were even a decade ago,” says Edmonton optician George Colgan. “So many children now have glasses.” Colgan often notices the biggest challenge is settling on glasses that are fun enough for the kid, but sensible enough to satisfy the parents. Keep in mind eyeglasses have come a long way: Memory metal frames can’t be bent out of shape. Titanium materials reduce the risk of skin irritation because they are hypoallergenic. Some lenses now come with UV protection. Temple cables wrap behind the ear and keep the glasses positioned properly. “For younger, more active children, cables are a good idea,” says Colgan.

Dillon’s son certainly didn’t kick up any fuss. Says his mom: “He was getting Batman glasses and that was cool, and that’s all there was to it.”

Toronto freelance writer Lisa Bendall has worn very strong glasses ever since her first eye exam at age seven.

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