One in six children has a vision problem that needs correction, according to Christine Parsons of the Ontario Association of Optometrists, and many of these problems -- such as lazy eye or turned eye -- can be treated successfully if they are caught early enough. However, says Parsons, "before the age of 9, children do not have the experience necessary to know what is normal as far as their vision is concerned; they might think that everyone sees things the way they do."
In addition, Tanya Lambden of the Alberta Association of Optometrists adds, a child's reading difficulties can often be attributed to vision or eye muscle trouble, but these conditions can go undetected for years, if children aren't taken in for regular eye exams.
Here's what you need to know about your child's eye health.
Keeping an eye out
Your child may not be able to tell you directly if he's having trouble with his vision, but there are signs you can watch for. Parsons lists the following common symptoms of vision problems:
• Trouble seeing the TV, or reading signs in the distance
• Squinting or tilting the head frequently
• Regularly bumping into things
• Having one eye turn in or out
• Complaining of headaches, dizziness or nausea
• Avoiding close work
• Frequently losing one's place while reading
Regular exams are a must
While you would probably notice if your vision had deteriorated, your child may not, so it's important to take her to an optometrist for regular eye tests. "Kids can be tested as young as 6 months," says Lambden, "and it is recommended to keep up with annual exams from this point forward -- even if the parents do not notice any problems." Coverage of eye exams varies by province -- many provinces, such as Ontario and Alberta, fund eye exams for children under 19. For information on coverage where you live, contact your provincial association of optometrists.
In addition, says Dr. Deborah Jones, clinic director and head of pediatric and special needs at the University of Waterloo's school of optometry, "it is also critically important to be sure your child has a comprehensive eye health examination by an optometrist or ophthalmologist at a very young age. Failure to treat visual problems early may result in poor vision that may not be correctable later." She adds, "Undetected eye disorders may cause children to function poorly in school, impacting them for a lifetime."
While optometrists are qualified to work with patients of all ages, you may wish to choose someone who works frequently with children. "Visiting the optometrist's office beforehand will give you an idea if they reach out to kids," says Michele Leger of the New Brunswick Association of Optometrists. "A waiting room that is kid-friendly, with books, toys and maybe even a separate area from the adults, will let you know they are inviting families to be a part of their office." She also recommends asking friends and coworkers with children for referrals.
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Choosing the right eyewear
If it does turn out that your child needs corrective lenses, the next step is finding the right pair of glasses. Leger recommends taking your time choosing and emphasizes the importance of a getting the proper fit. "You don't want a frame that pinches the ears or nose or weighs down on their face," she says. "They will be reluctant to wear the glasses if they are not comfortable." As for material, she suggests aiming for safety -- "a polycarbonate lens is the toughest material for impact," she says, "and will block UV rays." She adds that you should make sure the frames have a warranty, and check the fit of your child's glasses periodically, as they may need adjusting.
In addition to fit and durability, you need to select a pair of glasses that your child will want to wear. Lambden advises letting kids choose their own eyewear. "The child is way less likely to wear a 'cute' pair that the parents like than one they have picked themselves," she says. Leger adds that positive reinforcement is essential: "We are all thankful for our fictional friend Harry Potter, who became a role model for children needing glasses." However, says Lambden, "in most cases, getting a child to wear glasses can be pretty easy. Once they realize how much clearer and more comfortable their vision is, they often want to keep them on."
What about contacts?
If your child hates wearing glasses and has brought up the idea of contact lenses, you may want to consider it -- if you think they're ready. "The question doesn't have as much to do with age as it has to do with the maturity of the child," says Leger. "Physically, the eyes can tolerate contact lenses at a very young age." The most important factor is that both parent and child are committed to properly handling and caring for contact lenses.
Ensuring that your child can see properly is an essential part of his overall health. By paying attention and taking him to regular checkups, you'll make sure he's enjoying life to the fullest and performing well at school -- after all, according to the Ontario Association of Optometrists, children rely on vision for more than 80 per cent of their learning.
For more information, visit the following websites:
•Â Alberta Association of Optometrists -- Child Vision Program
•Â Canadian Association of Optometrists
•Â New Brunswick Association of Optometrists
•Â Ontario Association of Optometrists -- Child Vision Section
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