For any parent, the first time your child looks into your eyes is one of the most powerful experiences in life.  As they grow and learn to recognize Mommy & Daddy’s faces and mimic your every action, they are using the gift of sight to help them develop the skills they will need throughout their entire lives.

Part of the allure of babies is their big beautiful eyes.  Although they are nearly full grown at birth, eyes are far from fully developed.  All the parts are there, but much maturing needs to happen and involves developing the intricate connections between the cells in the eyeball and those in the brain that will translate into the sense of sight. 

When I let parents know that their children should have their eyes checked starting at 6 months of age, I often get strange looks – how is an Optometrist supposed examine their non-verbal cutie?  Actually, kids’ eye exams are really fun to do and are nothing like what would be done to check the parents’ eyes.  There are many different techniques to check the 3D (depth) vision, prescription (babies are supposed to have a prescription, so we actually hope to find some!), and health of a baby’s eyes.  All the parts might be new but that doesn’t mean they work right; in fact, babies can be born with eye problems normally found in seniors such as cataracts and glaucoma, and can even have very aggressive eye cancers, too.  Sometimes there are signs like red eyes, discharge, or one pupil looking sort of white, but often it’s too late for a good outcome if a problem is found that late.

Eye turns are a fairly common problem for kids.  About  1 in 20 will have some problem with eye co-ordination, which is sometimes a constant problem but for other kids might show up only when they are very tired.  Surgery and glasses can often help align the eyes better, or sometimes eye exercises are enough to teach the eyes to work together.  Most people I explain eye exercises to think it’s odd and impossible that simple but repetitive motions will help improve vision and often reduce headaches, but eyes have a lot of muscles in them that need exercise if they are getting lazy – just like the rest of the body – so exercises can be even more effective (and cheaper!) than glasses.

If an eye cannot see well due to health problems like a cataract, because of an eye turn, or on account of a big prescription in only one eye, that eye cannot “learn” to see.  The eyes and brain need to keep communicating with one another throughout the first 6 or so years of life in order to tell each other how to work together best and eventually reach the 20/20 level of vision that will allow for a life with good vision; however if a problem like one of those mentioned above is preventing that communication during the early years of life, vision might never develop.

OHIP fully covers the cost of eye examinations for kids up to and including the age of 19 years because of the delicate process of visual development and because of the great troubles being visually impaired will cause a person in our currently very visual world (close your eyes and try to go about your daily activities for 15 minutes – it’s very frustrating to do so!)  Although most kids have no problems with their eyes, you don’t know until it has been checked out by an Optometrist as kids don’t know what their eyes should be like and so don’t know to complain if there is a problem.  Pediatricians take only a quick peek at the eyes and vision screenings are often done at school to check for vision troubles, but I’ve had many adults confess that they can’t see out of one eye because they cheated on their school screening and so never got treatment.  Parents do whatever they can to look after and protect their children, and taking them for a free annual eye check-up may help your kids have a lifetime of good vision.

Copyright 2013 Dr. Sonya Frank

Originally published in the March 2013 Baden Outlook, page 31