Health

Time for an eye test

One million children in the UK have an undiagnosed vision defect. Poor eyesight can have a massive impact on progress at school. Should you get your child tested now?

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 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.

Many children have their first eye test around aged four to five when they are starting school. But evidence shows that if children with a vision problem are seen when they are three, that problem is likely to respond far better to treatment. Experts suggest bringing children in once they are confident talkers and are able to describe pictures they are shown. There’s no need to wait until they are confident with their letters. The sooner common problems like squint and lazy eye are picked up, the better.

...evidence shows that if children with a vision problem are seen when they are three, that problem is likely to respond far better to treatment.

SPOTTING EYE PROBLEMS

Children can live with moderate degrees of blur – to them it is just normal. They still develop, just perhaps not as quickly as they would if they had better vision.

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 kids 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 as well. But if you’ve never come across an eye problem, you might not know that anything’s wrong – and you can’t necessarily tell if a child has other invisible problems such as long or short sight.

AT THE EYE TEST

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 opticians do see some children with eye health issues such as glaucoma and cataracts. They can also pick up other conditions, such as diabetes and blood pressure, by looking at the eyes. Tumours of the eye, and brain tumours, may sometimes be detected but this is very rare.

WHAT THE TEST REVEALS

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 (see below). 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.

HOW POOR VISION IMPACTS KIDS

Academically, vision can make an enormous impact. If a child can’t see clearly, it’s not comfortable for them. It affects their ability to concentrate. The confidence at being able to see is astonishing. Opticians hear about children whose lives turn around after they get glasses, with a rapid up-turn in their reading age. Obviously, if everything is blurry, things take longer to take in. When children can’t see clearly, it takes them a lot longer to learn things.

WEARING GLASSES

Opticians report that most children with poor sight who are given glasses for the first time will want to wear them, simply because it’s great to see! Some children, often those with borderline poor sight, might be more reluctant to wear their glasses. Sometimes there is peer pressure not to wear them. Fortunately, nowadays, there’s an amazing array of colourful and funky frames to choose from. So give lots of positive encouragement and let your child choose the glasses – if little Johnny wants to wear green glasses with pink 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 spend a lot of time outdoors, sunglasses are a good idea. However, if you’ve ever 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. If you are going to buy sunglasses for your child, check that they block 100 per cent of UVA rays, as many cheap ones won’t.

‘HARRY STRUGGLED WITH HANDWRITING’

Hannah Johnson, mum to six-year-old Harry, tells us how screening picked up her son’s vision problems.

‘Harry’s entire reception class was screened, and we got a letter telling us to take him to the optometrists. As soon as we were informed, I realised how far away he held his book when he was reading.When he got his glasses, he was more comfortable. He can read comfortably and confidently now he has the right prescription.

‘Once, Harry needed new lenses so I left the glasses at the opticians. We had no spare pair at that point, so he spent a week without glasses at school. That week was probably a write-off in terms of schoolwork. His handwriting grew extremely messy and he struggled with his reading. I asked his teachers how he was getting on and they all noticed a difference. As soon as he got his glasses back he was fine.

‘Harry’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. But I do think maybe they shouldn’t have waited until nearly the summer holidays to screen the children. Harry had a whole year of struggling with his reading and vision –it would have been better if the screening had been done much earlier on.’

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