Babies aren’t born with fully formed vision. They learn to see over time as their brains develop in the first couple of years of life.
As babies grow, pathways between their brain and eyes are laid down. If this process doesn’t go smoothly, one or both eyes will not develop properly.
“If there’s a hindrance to vision — if children have blurry vision or need glasses — the pathways to the brain won’t be stimulated,” says Charlotte Gore, MD, a UCI Health pediatric ophthalmologist. “So the child never learns to see properly.”
For example, a condition known as amblyopia, or “lazy eye,” can result in vision impairment and loss of depth perception. If not treated early, it can be irreversible later in life.
That’s why it’s critical to diagnose eye disorders in children as early as possible and start treatment.
How to spot eye problems in kids
Amblyopia occurs in about 3 percent of children, and there are other disorders that threaten vision and can be helped with early diagnosis and treatment. To help detect the most common problems afflicting vision in children, Gore advises parents to look for:
- Misalignment — This is the easiest of the problems to notice, where one eye turns out or in when the child looks at the parent or at something else. This occurs in less than 1 percent of the total population.
- Cataracts — These are even rarer, occurring in less than 1 percent of children. Parents might see a white film covering the eye or observe a white reflection in their child’s eye in a photograph.
- Farsightedness (trouble seeing close), nearsightedness (trouble with distance vision), and astigmatism (distorted images resulting from a defect in the eye or lens) — These conditions are much harder to detect. In fact, most of the time parents won’t notice anything wrong.
What’s the right age for an eye exam?
Gore recommends eye exams for children within their first year or two if there is a family history of problems, such as amblyopia, misalignment or cataracts. “The earlier you catch it, the better we can treat it.”
But if parents or other relatives use lenses to correct near- or farsightedness or astigmatism, their children don’t need to be seen at such a young age. Gore says screening children for most other eye issues should be done before they enter school, when poor vision can affect learning.
“You want to make sure kids don’t have any issues and can learn well,” she says, noting that only 5 percent of learning problems have been shown to be related to problems with vision. “Between 50 percent and 70 percent of children I see in clinic come in as a result of a screening exam.”
Treatments for eye problems
Once problems are identified, the most common treatment is a pair of eyeglasses to improve vision. According to the Vision Council of America, about 75 percent of adults wear glasses or contact lenses. Some estimate that about one-quarter of school-age kids wear corrective lenses.
If the correction with glasses isn’t sufficient, sometimes a temporary patch over one eye may be used to strengthen the child’s other eye. If these used are appropriately, Gore says outcomes are excellent.
Eye patches also can be a treatment for misaligned eyes, but about one-third of children with this problem ultimately will require surgery.
Surgery also is the treatment for cataracts in children, as it is in adults. And like eye surgeries for adults, these procedures are done on an outpatient basis, with no hospitalization required.
“We don’t know what causes these eye diseases — genetics and prematurity may play roles,” Gore says. “But if we catch them early, we have the opportunity to maximize a child’s potential to have good vision.”
Eye mobile for kids
Catching vision problems early is the goal of the UCI Health Gavin Herbert Eye Institute’s Eye Mobile Program, which visits Orange County community events as well as elementary and preschools to provide free eye exams to young children.
Launched in 2014 with a grant from Children and Family Commission of Orange County (CFCOC), a UCI team led by pediatric ophthalmologist Dr. Robert Lingua, transformed a 33-foot motor home into a state-of-the-art eye clinic. Services are provided at no cost to families, including:
- An eye exam by an optometrist
- Glasses free of charge if needed
- Referral to an ophthalmologist should that be indicated
Although the program’s grant is slated to expire soon, the eye institute is seeking ways to keep the program alive. For more information on the Eye Mobile Team Program, call 949-824-6363 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. You may also donate directly to the eye mobile program.
In the meantime, look for the Eye Mobile clinic at Irvine Valley College on Saturday, April 28 and at the Anti-Cancer Challenge at Orange County Great Park on Saturday, May 19.