Our eyes are windows to the world around us. And for kids, vision is an important tool for learning. Seeing well can help them read books and screens, take tests and comprehend the lessons on the blackboard—in addition to understanding other important cues, from traffic signals to facial expressions. “If your child has an uncorrected vision problem, it may affect their ability to learn and reach their highest potential,” says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
It’s fitting that Children’s Eye Health and Safety Month is in August, coinciding with back-to-school. Having your child’s vision screened is an important part of their overall health, and is usually a part of a well-child visit. If a healthcare provider notes any possible vision problems, they may recommend that your child see an eye doctor, such as an ophthalmologist or an optometrist. Throughout the year, parents and guardians can take steps to protect the child’s eyes and familiarize themselves with symptoms that may indicate vision problems. Here’s how to get started.
- Take sensible precautions to protect a child’s eyes. According to the American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO), more than 90% of eye injuries can be avoided with proper eye protection. If your child plays sports or engages in activities such as paintball, for example, make sure that they’re wearing suitable face and eye guards. In addition, parents should keep harmful chemicals and sprays out of reach of children, and avoid toys that could cause eye injuries, including darts, arrows and other projectiles. Other home child-proofing steps can also protect the eyes, such as placing safety gates at the tops and bottoms of staircases, padding sharp corners around the home and placing safety locks on cabinets and drawers. See more AAO tips here.
- Be aware of the signs of possible vision problems. When young kids are struggling to see, they may not even know it. After all, they don’t know how their vision compares to others. But there are some tell-tale signs, according to the American Optometric Association. Those include the following:
- Eye discomfort and/or fatigue
- Eye rubbing or blinking
- A short attention span
- Avoidance of reading or other activities
- Covering an eye to see
- Head tilting
- Placing the face close to the reading material
- An eye that seems to turn in or out
- Double vision
- Trouble remembering what they read
- Trouble keeping their place when reading
If you notice any of these behaviors in your child, make note and share the information at their next eye exam.
- Encourage healthy eating habits. When you take care of the body, you take care of the eyes. That means it’s important to eat a diet rich in antioxidants, vitamins and minerals, including vitamin C, vitamin E, essential fatty acids and zinc, for starters. The American Optometric Association encourages people to eat the following foods:
- Dark leafy greens
- Colorful vegetables, such as broccoli, peas, green peppers, sweet potatoes and corn
- Bright and juicy fruits, like persimmons, tangerines, strawberries, grapefruit, papaya and tomatoes
- Fatty, cold-water fish like salmon and tuna
- Plenty of nuts and seeds
- Educate yourself on some of the common vision problems that impact kids. That way, if your child is struggling, you might be able to identify the challenge more quickly and get help. According to the CDC, some of the common problems kids experience with vision include:
- Refractive errors. When the shape of a child’s eye prevents proper focus, it’s often called a refractive error, and the result is blurred vision. If you’ve heard of words like “nearsightedness,” “farsightedness” and “astigmatism,” these are all refractive errors.
- Amblyopia. Also known as “lazy eye,” this condition happens when the brain miscommunicates with an eye, causing one eye to become stronger than the other.
- Strabismus. If a child’s eyes appear to be crossing, they might have strabismus, in which their eyes struggle to focus on the same thing at once.
- Convergence insufficiency. If a child has a hard time seeing objects up close, it may be because their eyes aren’t working together correctly. Convergence insufficiency can cause blurry vision or double vision when trying to look at a book, computer or other close-up object.
- Make sure your entire family wears sunglasses. UV rays don’t just damage the skin, they can also damage the eyes. You can protect your child’s eyes by encouraging them to wear sunglasses with UV protection whenever they spend time outside—even on cloudy days.
- Limit screen time. Too much time spent staring at digital devices may lead to nearsightedness, dry eyes and disrupted sleep. While the American Academy of Ophthalmology doesn’t give official recommendations on how much screen time is too much, the organization encourages parents to set boundaries and limits for their kids. Make sure kids are taking breaks from screens and lubricating their eyes (via blinking and with drops). And remember to encourage kids to be kids! They’ll benefit from spending more time outside, where they can get fresh air and exercise, and their eyes can recover from the stress and strain of school and video games.
- Teach good hand-washing hygiene. Remind your children not to touch or rub their eyes. And if they must—or if they wear contact lenses—let them know how important it is to wash their hands before touching in or around their eyeballs.
- Get enough zzzzz. Sleep allows the body to recover and recharge. It gives your brain and your vision a chance to refresh and reset. Make sure your child has a dark, quiet, cool space where they can get all the sleep they need (visit the CDC’s sleep chart to find out the ideal amount of sleep at different stages of life). And be sure to remove digital devices and avoid screen time before bed. The blue light from screens can disrupt sleep, and the eyes could use a break, anyway.
- Know your family history and risk factors. Many eye conditions have genetic ties. Learn what you can about your family history, and share it with your eye doctor so they can be on the lookout for signs and symptoms of conditions your child (and you, yourself) may have a heightened risk for, and share that information with your family doctor and eye doctor.
Want to know more about your child’s eye health and vision? Make an appointment with an eye doctor today and start the school year out with a 20/20 view.