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Healthy eyes and good vision play a critical role in infant and child development, and yet, according to The 2020 Vision Index , commissioned by Optometry Australia, a third of parents have never taken their child for an eye examination.
“Good vision is essential for a child’s educational, physical and social development,” explains Luke Arundel, Optometry Australia’s Chief Clinical Officer.
A child’s inability to see properly can not only impact their academic experiences, from not being able to read to not being able to concentrate, but can also impact their social development, for example being excluded in playground activities because they can’t see to participate properly.
The 2020 Vision Index found that 35 per cent of children who visited an optometrist required prescription glasses, contradicting 80 per cent of Australian parents who believe their children have great eyesight.
The Vision Index also found that, on average, Australian parents wait until their children are almost six, before considering an eye examination.
“We recommend that all children have a full eye examination with an optometrist before starting school,” says Mr Arundel.
“And then regular check-ups every two to three years as they progress through primary and secondary school.
“Having a child’s eyes tested before they attend school means any vision problems they might have can be detected early.
“Good vision can give every child the best chance of reaching their full potential.”
Mr Arundel explains that it’s difficult to tell how well a child sees, because children often think that the way they see is perfectly normal, even when there is a problem.
“Even if things seem to be going well, a visit to the optometrist will check that their eyes are healthy, and their vision is developing as expected,” he adds.
“Importantly, many eye problems in children can be prevented or treated if detected early.”
Having a child’s eyes tested before they attend school means any vision problems they might have can be detected early.
Keeping your child’s eyes healthy
“There are many noticeable signs that your child might be struggling with their vision, but others might be harder to identify,” explains Mr Arundel.
“While not all signs point to an eye or vision problem, an eye examination with an optometrist is the most effective way to rule out any possible vision problems.”
He says the signs of vision problems in children include:
- Difficulty reading, such as skipping and confusing words, or holding books very close while reading.
- Headaches or complaints of blurred or double vision.
- Squinting or expressing difficulty in seeing objects in the distance.
- Eye strain and noticeable head tilts when looking at something.
- Frequent blinking or eye rubbing.
- Red or watery eyes.
- One eye turning in or out while the other points straight ahead.
Mr Arundel emphasises that it is vital for parents to educate their children about the importance of eye health early.
“Not only will this help ensure their child speaks up when they notice issues with or changes in their vision, but it’ll also help them to understand the value of sight and not to take their eye health for granted,” he says.
In a typical eye examination, the optometrist will examine the child’s eyes to make sure they are healthy, and that their vision is developing normally in both eyes, explains Mr Arundel.
“They will test vision and whether there is a need for glasses or contact lenses, eye movements and function and ocular health.”
He says that optometrists understand that eye tests can sometimes feel scary and intimidating, especially for young children, however, they do use special child-friendly tests that allow children to identify shapes, letters and pictures.
“After the eye examination, the optometrist will tell the parent if their child requires prescription glasses,” he adds.
“If they do, it is often to correct long-sightedness, short-sightedness or astigmatism.”
Astigmatism is a common and treatable eye condition that relates to the curvature of the eye and causes blurred vision at all distances.
National preschool vision screening
The Vision Index found that parents were most likely to take their children to the optometrist because their child failed a vision screening test at school.
“There are early childhood vision screening programs established in some states and territories, which all operate differently,” explains Mr Arundel.
“But there isn’t a nationally coordinated vision screening program for preschool children.
“Optometry Australia has worked with Vision 2020 Australia and other vision and eye health stakeholders to advocate for all states and territories to implement screening programs for 3.5 to five-year old’s that meet specific standards.
“These standards are directed at ensuring all children can access effective screening and are supported to access follow-up care if required.”
Mr Arundel recommends that even if a child has undergone a vision screening, parents should still take their child for a comprehensive eye examination with an optometrist.
He explains that while vision screenings are a good starting point, they often don’t pick up on all the vision problems that can impact children.
Mr Arundel’s strategies for keeping your child’s eyes healthy:
- Take your child to visit an optometrist on a regular basis, especially at the first sign of a suspected vision problem.
- Encourage regular breaks. Try implementing the 20-20-20 rule; look at something twenty feet away for twenty seconds, every twenty minutes.
- Encourage your child to spend a few hours outdoors every day.
- Encourage your child to wear sunglasses and a broad-brimmed hat while outside as this reduces the amount of UV exposure to their eyes.
- Avoid using screens in dark lit rooms and position the device so there are no visible reflections.
- Promote healthy eating by including plenty of vegetables, fruits, nuts and fish in your child’s diet. These foods contain important nutrients such as antioxidants, vitamin A and omega-3s, all helpful in maintaining eye and body health.