My wife, Nicole, and I became parents about a year and a half ago. Before Samuel was born, we read parenting books, attended birthing classes, and listened to advice from family and friends. It seemed his entire first year of life was mapped out with well doctor visits, developmental milestones, and an empty baby book ready to record his ‘firsts’. In going through this preparation, I noticed one ‘first’ that wasn’t discussed-when Sam should have his first eye exam. Since completing my residency in pediatrics, I’ve had many parents ask me this question. The answer, as early as 6 months to 1 year, often surprises them. A closer look into why an eye exam is performed will show why it is important for kids of all ages to see their eye doctor on a regular basis.
The primary reason for infants between 6 months and a year to have an eye exam is to check their ocular health. A dilated exam will show that all of the ocular structures have developed as they should without disorders or disease. This health screening is so important, President Jimmy Carter Developed the InfantSEE program in the 1970s to provide free exams for infants 6 months to 1 year after two of his grandchildren were diagnosed with retinoblastoma; a rare, cancerous tumor of the eye. Catching diseases early can lead to better treatment, decrease the risk of vision loss and, in the case of retinoblastoma, prevent loss of life. The importance of evaluating the ocular health of children was further affirmed when the Affordable Care Act guaranteed eye care coverage for all children under the age of 18, including infants.
The second reason for infants to have an eye exam is to evaluate their risk of developing ‘lazy eye’. Lazy eye, or Amblyopia, can be caused by either an eye that turns on its own or a large amount of farsightedness, nearsightedness, or astigmatism in one or both eyes. Catching these risk factors while children are in the ‘critical period’ of vision development (before the age of 8) has been shown to increase the likelihood of successful treatment. Glasses for children as young as 1 or 2 years old are used to not only correct the child’s vision, but also to help their visual system develop the ability to see 20/20. This prevents lazy eye from developing and can eliminate the need for patching an eye and surgery.
Ensuring a child is seeing as clearly as possible, the final reason for having an eye exam, does not apply to infants, since an infant’s visual system is still developing. Ensuring a child is seeing as clearly as possible is crucial, however, for kids three years old and up. It is estimated that learning is 70% visual. A child who is having difficulty seeing will therefore be inhibited in their learning. While screenings at school or the pediatrician’s office will catch some of the kids that will benefit from glasses, they often miss kids that struggle with near vision, have trouble using their eyes together, or have figured out how to pass the test without actually seeing the chart (my younger brother became proficient at passing through repeating what the person in front of him said-including on his driver’s license screening!). The best way to ensure your child is visually ready to do their best in school is through a comprehensive exam with an optometrist. The exam will make sure that their eyes are healthy, that their vision is developing as it should, and that they are visually ready to learn.
So, Samuel had his first eye exam at 6 months old. My wife let him know that it was Daddy’s fault that he was getting eye drops, but he took them like a champ (it helped that infants have reduced corneal sensitivity so the drops don’t actually hurt). There’s still no spot in his baby book for his first eye exam, but it’s good to know that his eyes are healthy and are developing exactly how they should.
Southwest Vision Center
Three Rivers, Michigan