August 2011

AUGUST 2011: Health Note – Vision Care: Early Eye Exams Crucial for Children

Author: Dr. Jennifer Switak

One of the most important health exams a child can have is an eye exam. This is because many visual abilities are fully functioning by six months of age and continue developing to adult-like levels by the age of 12. To emphasize the importance of an eye check-up, here are two stories of two children who see the world very differently:

Mary’s story
Mary is five years old and her mom brings her to the eye doctor since Mary’s teacher says she has a hard time seeing the board at school. During the exam, Mary’s mom is shocked that her daughter is only seeing clearly out of one eye. The eye doctor mentions glasses, patching and vision therapy to help Mary’s “bad eye” see clearer, but she will probably never have perfect 20/20 vision in that eye. Mary’s mom feels terrible since she was unaware that Mary had any vision difficulties. Little Mary is confused as to why she has to wear glasses and patch one eye when she sees fine with both eyes open.

Unfortunately, many eye doctors see a case like Mary’s almost every week in their offices. It saddens me that this can be prevented. What can we do as moms, dads, educators, doctors, and communities? Promote children’s eye exams!
According to the American Optometry Association, children need to visit the eye doctor for comprehensive eye exams by age one, and at three, age five, and every two years during school. Eighty-five percent of what children learn comes from what they see. That’s why it is essential to visit an eye doctor. You might be saying, “Did I read that correctly? An eye exam before the age of one?”

Absolutely! I recommend that the child come in between 9-12 months of age. Believe it or not, it is easy and so rewarding to do an exam on children this young.
The main difference in a child’s eye exam and an adult’s is how the doctor collects the information. We work quickly, but each test we perform is selected to give us the most information possible. We look at objective information during the exam to tell us how the child is seeing. We do not need a response from the patient, no matter how young they are, to evaluate vision and eye health. We can diagnose how the patient sees, detect if there is an eye turn or an eye tumor, and determine how the eyes function together as well as separately.

A wonderful public health program that ensures that babies have healthy vision now and for their futures is InfantSee. Under this program, any child under the age of one can have a free comprehensive eye exam by an InfantSee provider. To find an InfantSee provider, visit infantsee.org and search for eye doctors in your area.

Some signs that your child may have a vision problem:
• Squints or sits close to the TV or computer
• Holds books too close to read
• Unable to see the board at school clearly
• Complains of headaches or blurry vision
• Closes one eye to see better
• One or both of the eyes turn in or out. (Despite what you hear, most eye turns do not go away.)

Mikey’s story
Little Mikey’s mom has amblyopia (aka “lazy eye” where one eye sees much better than the other). There is a strong family history of amblyopia on her side. Mikey’s mom is aware of this condition since her own father had it. Mikey’s mom is very proactive and took Mikey for his first eye exam at six months. Through comprehensive eye exams, family support and being committed to the treatment that was prescribed, he is a very active 10-year-old who loves playing baseball and, most importantly, has clear vision and depth perception to hit those homeruns! These are the cases that eye doctors love to hear!

Being a new mom myself, while holding my baby boy in my arms, I notice his eyes. What joy to see your baby looking at your face, seeing him smile when you make a funny face, or watching him scoot across the floor to grab at a toy he sees. The eyes are constantly working and developing so much during that first year. Don’t you want to make sure that you child sees you as clearly as you can see him?

Getting children’s eyes checked early is vital for their development and how they function. A child who is nearsighted—unable to see far away—can be shy or timid or have low self-worth since he or she cannot see to do well in school or to participate in sports. When that child has glasses or contacts on, he is fun and excited and performs well at school because he can finally see clearly. It is such a joy to see a child put on glasses for the first time and see the expression on his face when he can see the leaves on the trees!

So, the most important exam and definitely one of the easiest for your young child is a thorough eye exam. More often than not, I tell parents after an exam that their child does have clear vision and healthy eyes, and I can see the happiness that this confirmation brings them. There still are the young patients who need glasses or patching to help their eyes function at their best. However, the parents are happy in this case, too, since they brought their child in very early to have an eye exam. The sooner we detect a problem, the sooner we can treat it!

Jennifer Switak, O.D., practices optometry in Bluffton. Her office is located at 104 Buckwalter Parkway. For more information or to make an appointment, call (843) 757-9588.

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