What would it really mean to see the world through a child’s eyes? It might not be exactly what you think. An infant, for example, has a range of clear vision that is only about 8 to 12 inches, says Clinton Prestwich, O.D., FAAO, Assistant Professor with the Midwestern University Chicago College of Optometry.
“A child’s vision system is a skill that is developed over time, just like speech and language,” Dr. Prestwich says. “They need to learn to use their eyes correctly as a whole vision system, and when there are problems with this, it can lead to delays in development.”
While your baby’s pediatrician will take a basic cursory overview of their vision system, this screening is entirely different from a comprehensive vision examination that would be carried out by an optometrist or ophthalmologist. But at what age should parents plan for this eye specialist appointment?
“The American Optometric Association recommends a child’s first eye exam should be at 6 months old, and through their InfantSEE program, parents can find a provider and get their child’s eyes checked free of charge,” Dr. Prestwich explains.
Your baby’s first eye exam
Normal future development is the reason this early exam is so important. “When we are young, our brains are malleable, and we want to catch a problem early so we can correct it while a child is still young and their visual system can develop correctly,” Dr. Prestwich says. Beyond nearsightedness, the optometrist will be looking for refractive errors, eyes that are turned or crossed and even eye cancers.
During this first exam, the infant sits comfortably in a parent’s arms and even gazes at a toy while the doctor takes measurements, shines lights and holds lenses in front of the eyes. “Parents are sometimes recruited to hold toys or sing songs,” Dr. Prestwich says. The best time to schedule this exam is when your child will be happy and alert and it might be necessary to dilate the eyes with a painless eye drop. While your baby’s eyes may be sensitive to sunlight immediately after being dilated, that effect wears off quickly.
Assuming eyes and vision are developing fine, the next visit won’t be necessary until about 3 years of age, followed by another visit when they start school, and then every year thereafter, Dr. Prestwich says.
Developing healthy vision
There are many ways you can help your baby develop a healthy vision system. Cradle your baby in the crook of your arm for that optimal 8 to 12 inches between your faces, and be sure to use robust facial expressions when talking. To connect the auditory and visual senses, talk to your baby from different areas of the room throughout the day. Alternate between tummy time and face-up time. “Anything that allows them to explore the world and develop a perception of what that world looks like is hugely important,” Dr. Prestwich says.
As your child grows, help them connect what they explore with their hands with what they see by playing hide-and-seek and peekaboo. Include games that involve tracking objects as they move — such as rolling a ball and playing catch. “By moving their bodies and their eyes, children are exploring the world and building their world map,” she says.
It’s never too late to take your child for their first eye exam, even if they are much older than 6 months, Dr. Prestwich says, adding that it’s difficult for a parent to know that their child has a vision problem simply by observation. “Some things can only be discovered through measurements and catching a problem early can change the trajectory of a child’s development,” says Dr. Prestwich.