It’s back to school time and many parents ask us when they should bring their children in for exams. This is usually followed by “well, they get their eyes tested at the pediatrician” or “they get tested at school.” It is important to understand that these are vision screenings and while they are effective at picking up large or gross problems, they can easily miss issues with the health of the eye, the alignment of the eye muscles, or near focusing issues. An examination with an eyecare specialist such as an ophthalmologist or optometrist is much more accurate and thorough. During an eye exam, the child’s acuity is tested as well as eye muscle alignment, pupil reaction, color testing and depth perception. The pupils are dilated to relax the focusing muscles and the doctor will use a special handheld light called a retinoscope to accurately measure the child’s prescription. Once the pupils are dilated the doctor can also check the health of the inside of the eye.
Early exams are critical for diagnosing certain conditions because it great increases the chances for recovery. One condition, although rare, called retinoblastoma is a life-threatening form of cancer found in the eye in children. Another condition called amblyopia or “lazy eye” is a cause for blindness that is completely preventable if caught early in children. It occurs when there is a large difference in prescription between the two eyes and the brain will “turn off” the bad eye and only develop the good eye. If caught early, spectacle lenses can be prescribed to make the bad eye see clearly and force the two eyes to work together equally.
The American Optometric Association recommends eye exams at 6 months old, 3 years, before entering school and every two years thereafter. Certain risk factors may warrant more frequent eye exams such as low birth weight/prematurity, a family history of retinoblastoma or genetic eye disease, infection in the mother during labor or difficult delivery, a family history of high prescriptions, ametropia, or strabismus, and nervous disorders. Although not offered at our office, some doctors participate in the nationwide public health program called InfantSEE which provide free exams to children under 12 months old. Follow this link to find a doctor near you: http://www.infantsee.org/