Our eyesight is not something we consciously think about. It is such an integral part of who we are, how we communicate, how we learn and how we interact with the world. And because it is such a natural part of who we are, unfortunately, it is only when our sight starts to deteriorate that we think about having it checked.
For children, early eye exams are even more important for a number of reasons, according to Tyler Parsons, an optometrist for Bense Optical and Optometry in St. John’s.
“Children don’t always recognize when there is a vision problem because they don’t know what is visibly ‘normal.’ So, although they may not come to a parent with a vision complaint, it doesn’t necessarily mean there isn’t some sort of vision abnormality that can affect learning,” he explains.
What may surprise some parents Parsons says, is that your child’s first eye exam should actually be as soon as six months. While this may seem young, he adds the reasoning is twofold – children at this age (and even parents) may have no idea there is a problem and if there is, the earlier it can be addresses, the better chance there will be a positive outcome.
“The younger the kids, the more plastic their brains,” explains Parsons, which means their brains are more capable of adapting. “So, if you were to pick up an abnormality at a younger age, it is more likely it won’t have long-term effects. For example, if you have a child that has a lazy eye [amblyopia], if you can catch it at a younger age, it is more likely they will be able to see better as opposed to if you wait until they are 11, 12, 13 years old when they come in for the first time — there is less we can do to help develop that lazy eye at that point.”
In cases of amblyopia, Parsons says that although the eye is structurally normal, it doesn’t develop properly. The brain learns to ignore the “lazy eye”, and focuses more on the better, clearer eye. And because a child’s brain is more adaptable than an teenager or adult, if left untreated, it may result in permanent vision abnormalities
“There are a lot of different things we can do with a lazy eye. For example, we can patch the eye. By patching the good-seeing eye it forces the weaker-seeing eye to develop,” says Parsons.
A 2008 study published in the Canadian Journal of Ophthalmology looked at the prevalence of vision-related issues of Newfoundland and Labrador children, the average age being four years old. The children were screened using the latest tests and researchers found that 14 per cent of the children possessed significant vision disorders, the most prevalent of which were hyperopia (farsightedness), amblyopia, and strabismus (crossed eyes).
While this number is similar in other provinces both researchers and Parsons say this is just further evidence that early screening is imperative for children.
“Children may think that what they are seeing is their normal sight. How does a child know if they have never seen anything different?” Parsons adds.
Parsons says parents may be wondering how you can test a six-month-old child’s vision when they can’t indicate what they are seeing.
“Obviously an exam for a six-month-old child will be different than one for a child that is seven or eight years old. We typically check the child’s vision through a technique called preferential looking in which an infant/toddler is shown two different stimuli to ensure they can differentiate between the two. We want to make sure they are seeing within age-related norms,” explains Parsons. “We also assess if there is a need for glasses, test eye movements and binocular vision as well as ocular health,” he adds.
Optometrists spend four years studying the health of the eye alone, which makes them the obvious first line of defense for your child’s eye care. As a primary eye-care provider they can diagnose and treat eye conditions and if necessary, refer to an ophthalmologist.
“It is said that 80 per cent of learning in the first 12 years of life is based off of visual information, so catching any issues as soon as possible is vital.”
The American Academy of Ophthalmology suggests children have their first eye exam at six months and then at two to three years old and once a year when they start school and they should have an annual exam until they are 18.
For more information, or to book an eye exam at one of Bense Optical and Optometry’s two locations in St. Johns and Paradise, visit www.benseoptical.com or visit their Facebook page.