Health

Seeing straight

One million children in the UK have an undiagnosed vision defect which can impact on many areas of life, including learning. Read on to see if your child might be affected.

Published

You might think that if your child can’t read yet, there’s no point taking him for an eye test. But opticians have many clever methods for assessing a child’s eyes. They can even examine a baby’s vision by watching how he responds to being shown pictures – and they say you shouldn’t wait until your child is reading before you get him tested.

The recommendation is that children should have their first eye test aged four to five. But evidence suggests that if children with a vision problem are seen when they are three, that problem is likely to respond far better to treatment. So, the sooner common problems like squint and lazy eye are picked up, the better. There’s no need to wait until they start school or until they can read. The optician can do a picture test and find out more about your child’s vision by playing with toys and games.

IDENTIFYING PROBLEMS

Sometimes it’s obvious if a child is having difficulties – you might notice that your child’s eye turns in or out, especially when he is tired.

He might sit very close to the TV, or blink a lot, or rub his eyes. He may not seem to be developing at the same rate as his peers or siblings. If there’s a strong family history of eye problems, it makes sense to get children checked early too. More than 70 per cent of children with special needs, such as autism or Down’s Syndrome, have vision problems, so it’s wise to get them checked.

But if you’ve never come across an eye problem, you might not know that anything’s wrong – you can’t necessarily tell if a child has invisible problems such as long or short sight. Children can live with moderate degrees of blur and to them it is just normal. They still develop – just perhaps not as quickly as they would if they had better vision.

If there’s a strong family history of eye problems, it makes sense to get children checked early too.

EYE TEST

What happens at an eye test? First of all, the optician will ask for a full history – for example, she might ask you about a family history of eye problems, your pregnancy and your child’s health. She will check your child for long and short sight and astigmatism, and will assess his eye muscles – if they are weak, then she can give exercises to help them strengthen. She will check his 3-D vision, which sounds complicated but is just seeing how well both his eyes work together. And she will use a special instrument called an ophthalmoscope to look into the eyes for any signs of disease.

Eye disease is more common as you get older but very rarely some children do have eye health issues such as glaucoma and cataracts. The eye test can also pick up other conditions, such as diabetes and blood pressure. Very rarely, the optician might uncover tumours of the eye, or brain tumours, but this is highly unusual.

WHAT EYE TESTS SHOW

An optician might pick up long or short sight, or astigmatism, where the cornea of the eye is slightly misshapen. All these can be corrected using glasses. Your child’s prescription will change as he gets older, so it’s essential to go back regularly.

A squint (strabismus) is when the child’s eyes don’t point in the same direction – one might go in, out, up or down, while the other one looks forward. This can cause blurry or double vision, plus lazy eye. Treatments vary from child to child but might include glasses, an eye patch, exercises or surgery.

A lazy eye (amblyopia) is when the vision in one of your child’s eyes hasn’t developed properly. This can happen as the result of a squint. It’s treated with glasses and putting a patch over the ‘good’ eye, forcing the ‘lazy’ eye to work harder.

When children can’t see clearly, it takes them a lot longer to learn things.

LIVING WITH POOR VISION

If everything is blurry, things naturally take longer to take in. When children can’t see clearly, it takes them a lot longer to learn things. Vision can make an enormous impact on learning. If childen can’t see properly, it’s not comfortable for them. It affects their ability to concentrate. The confidence at being able to see is astonishing and children’s lives are often turned around after they get glasses. Parents may report that their child’s reading age has gone up by three years in three months.

Parents worry how children will manage if glasses are prescribed, but opticians report that many children who are given glasses for the first time will want to wear them, simply because it’s great to see! Sometimes there might be some peer pressure not to wear them. So give lots of positive encouragement. This is much less of a problem nowadays when glasses come in all sorts of cool shapes, sizes and colours. Let your child choose the glasses – and if he wants to wear green glasses with yellow spots, let him!

UVA and sunglasses

Exposure to the sun’s UV radiation has been linked to an increased risk of developing cataracts – and as children spent a lot of time outdoors, sunglasses are a good idea. But if you’ve tried to get a very young child to wear sunglasses and been met with resistance, don’t worry! Although wearing sunglasses does block the sun’s potentially damaging UVA rays, there are other ways of keeping the sun off. Try using a hat with a visor, or putting a sunshade in the car window or on the buggy. When buying sunglasses for your child, check that they block 100 per cent of UVA rays, as many cheap ones won’t.

CASE STUDY

Joanne, mum to five-year-old Jake, says: ‘Jake’s entire reception class was screened, and we got a letter telling us to take him to the optometrists. I had noticed how far away he held his book when he was reading. Once he got his glasses, he was more comfortable. He can read confidently now he has the right prescription.

‘Once, Jake had to manage without his glasses for a few days and he needed new lenses so I left them with the optician and we didn’t have a spare pair. That week was probably a write-off in terms of schoolwork. His handwriting grew messy and he struggled with reading. All his teachers noticed a difference. As soon as he got his glasses back he was fine.

‘Jake’s prescription is getting stronger all the time – had it not been picked up at school, I don’t know when it would have been noticed. I think they should screen children as soon as they start reception as he did miss out on a lot that first year.’

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