As back-to-school approaches, and the calendar fills with shopping plans and appointments to take your child to the doctor and dentist, don’t lose sight of one more important health priority: vision screening.

August is Children’s Eye Health and Safety Month for good reason: to remind parents of how important their child’s vision is, and to encourage them to take their child to an eye care professional. After all, vision is one of the critical tools when it comes to learning, development and school readiness. When vision is at its best, there  may fewer distractions when learning all the important lessons, like reading, writing and arithmetic.

And yet, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one out of every four preschool-aged children experiences an undiagnosed or untreated vision problem. And the National Center for Children’s Vision and Eye Health found that infants and preschool-age children whose vision isn’t corrected may struggle more in school.

When you take your child to see an optometrist or ophthalmologist, he or she has the tools and expertise to identify and often correct vision challenges early on. Read on to understand some of the common vision disorders that impact kids, and what some warning signs and symptoms might be.

What are some of the most common vision problems for kids?

Refractive errors. You’ve probably heard words like nearsightedness (myopia), farsightedness (hyperopia) and astigmatism. Those are known as “refractive” errors, and they’re the most common type of vision problem, according to the National Eye Institute. When a person has a refractive error, the shape of their eyes doesn’t allow light to properly focus on the retina, and blurred vision results in different ways. With nearsightedness, far-away objects look blurry. With far-sightedness, close-up objects look blurry. And with astigmatism, both far and near objects can look blurry or even distorted. Glasses, contact lenses or surgery can usually help people with refractive errors see more clearly.

Amblyopia. Also known as “lazy eye,” amblyopia occurs when messages from the brain to the eye get disrupted, and vision deteriorates as a result. “The weaker—or lazy—eye often wanders inward or outward,” describes the Mayo Clinic, and the eyes seem to not work together, as the stronger eye compensates for the changes. With treatment, the weaker eye can usually be strengthened using glasses, contact lenses or by briefly wearing an eye patch. 

Strabismus. When eyes “cross,” the cause might be strabismus. In this condition, eyes misalign. One may veer inward, towards the nose, or outward, while the other eye focuses ahead. According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, symptoms of strabismus could include crossed eyes, uncoordinated eye movements, double vision and vision in just one eye. This condition could be a symptom of a more serious health condition, so it’s important to talk with a doctor if you’re concerned your child has it. Treatment generally involves exercises that will strengthen the eye muscles; and if that isn’t effective, surgery could help.

Convergence insufficiency.  When the eyes aren’t working together to properly focus on an object that is up close, like a book or a tablet, it could be because of something called convergence insufficiency. According to the CDC, this could manifest as blurry vision or double vision. It could cause headaches, make reading difficult and result in tired eyes. It’s often treated with eye exercises and/or glasses. 

What are common symptoms of vision problems in kids?

Kids may have no idea that their vision isn’t “normal.” After all, what they see is all they know, so it’s normal to them! If they are struggling to see objects up close, or read the chalkboard or computer screen, they could react in a number of ways, from squinting to avoidance. The American Optometric Association lists the following signs and symptoms that could indicate a school-age child has a vision problem.

  • Eye rubbing/frequent blinking
  • Short attention span
  • Fatigue, discomfort
  • Headaches
  • Avoidance of reading or other vision-centered activities
  • Covering an eye or tilting the head to the side
  • Holding items, such as books, very close to the face
  • An eye that turns inward or outward
  • Double vision
  • Losing their place when reading
  • Struggling to remember what they read

If you’ve noticed your child is experiencing one or more of these symptoms, make an appointment to take them to an eye care professional. They’ll be able to evaluate the way your child’s eyes are functioning, and determine if they need glasses or any other help.

How can I protect my child’s vision?

While eye exams are important, so are everyday actions that can support and keep your child’s vision safe. Too often, children suffer vision loss because of eye injuries that should have been preventable. According to the non-profit organization Prevent Blindness, eye injuries in kids happen most commonly because of toys, falls, everyday tools (garden tools, forks, knives, pens and pencils), contact with harmful household products and chemicals and automobile accidents.

To protect your child’s vision, follow the following advice.

Childproof your home with thoughts given to eye safety. That means make sure that rooms are well lighted; use safety gates as well as guard rails on stairs; lock away potentially harmful items, from household chemicals to sharp objects; and avoid purchasing toys that could be dangerous, either because of their sharp edges or projectiles.

Score some sunglasses and protective glasses. Kids tend to spend more time outside than adults, so it’s important to protect their eyes from UV rays. Mayo Clinic recommends sunglasses that align with the National Standards Institute’s guidelines and protect from UVA and UVB rays. And if your child is involved in sports, make sure their eyes are protected. The CDC states that  90 percent of eye injuries can be prevented with protective eye gear.

Encourage healthy habits. Healthy habits can support healthy eyes! Help your child learn how to take care of themselves by eating a healthy, balanced diet; drinking enough water; getting the proper amount of sleep; and spending time with friends and doing activities they enjoy. These are all valuable lessons to learn early, so that they become the default later in life.

Get regular eye exams. No one knows your child’s vision better than their eye doctor. Make it a habit to get their eyes checked regularly. By making an appointment before they start school for the year, you can help them be their best and do their best—because they’ll be able to see their best.

Wondering how your child sees the world? Make an appointment today with an eye care professional to find out. The US Preventive Services Task Force recommends vision screening for all children at least once between age 3 and 5 years old, and earlier if a parent or sibling has eye problems, or if you suspect that they are having issues with their vision.