When parents look lovingly into their children’s eyes, they may spot the spark bound to ignite a bright future or see worrying signs or ocular troubles to come. And vision issues are no small things for children, especially because they often precipitate behavior that leads to psychological or developmental misdiagnoses. This is common because it’s hard to figure out if a child’s vision is clear. Children are, after all, poor communicators. And very young children with vision issues lack a baseline understanding of what the average person see — or what they should see.
Unfortunately, this all means that when a kid’s sight does become a parental concern — from squinting, a troubling school screening, or problems reading — the opportunity for early intervention has often passed. All the more reason to be proactive and well informed on the issue, which is clouded by misinformation and myths that ensure parental confusion. To clear things up, here are nine common misconceptions about kids’ vision that parents ought to ignore.
Children Need To Be Verbal to Have an Eye Exam
Most adults are very familiar with an eye exam. They understand going to the optometrist involves putting their face against a ceiling-mounted, sci-fi contraption packed with lenses and attempting to discern the difference between option one and two, one and two, one and two, here it is again, one, sure, one or two. One must understand the directive to participate in this weirdly grueling diagnostic.
But there are professionals who can tease out vision problems from a pre-verbal human, explains Dr. Christopher Quinn, president of the American Optometric Association. “Optometrists have the training and the experience to test pre-verbal children and identify a whole host of potential visual problems that might not be apparent,” he explains.
In fact, Quinn recommends that parents develop a relationship with an optometrist when their child is as young as 6 months old. The AOA even has a program called InfantSEE that provides free screening for babies between six and 12 months old. Plus, parents who have a child covered under their health insurance are guaranteed coverage for an infant vision screening.
If a Child Isn’t Squinting There Isn’t a Problem
“If a child isn’t exhibiting any behavior that would suggest there are any problems with vision, most parents presume everything is okay,” Quinn says. That’s a problem, he explains, for the simple reason that humans have two eyes. “One of the most serious problems is a condition called amblyopia, in which one eye doesn’t see well. When there’s a problem with one eye, children often don’t exhibit behavior that would indicate difficulty with their vision.”
The problem is that a child who gets by on their good eye, unbeknownst to parents, might have to suffer problems with their sight much longer than necessary. That’s because many issues can be addressed and corrected when caught early.
The Biggest Vision Problems Require Corrective Lenses
Most parents seem to think the biggest vision issues that should cause concern in developmentally typical children are those related to farsightedness, nearsightedness, or astigmatisms. But vision can be adversely affected by more than just lense malformation of the eye.
“There are far more things that can be potentially wrong with a child’s vision than what we would call ‘refractive error,’” Quinn explains. “Equally important is the ability of the visual system to perform at its peak.”
Optometrists look at more than how far or clearly a child can see, Quinn notes. The also measure depth perception, how the eyes track and coordinate with each other, and how eyes can accommodate changes in vision from near to far. What’s more, problems diagnosed in these areas can be corrected if caught early enough.
School Vision Screenings Are Enough
“We march the kids down to the nurse office and put them in front of an eye chart,” Quinn says. “And we call out the kids with blurry vision.” But he stresses that eye charts are a relatively blunt and unsophisticated tool for diagnosing childhood vision issues. Relying on school vision screenings can mean missing subtler problems.
“In some ways, it can give parents a false sense of security,” Quinn explains. But, he suggests, parents don’t understand what school vision screenings actually are. “No. Kids didn’t have their ‘eyes checked,’” he says. “They had a visual acuity screening that’s really only looking for myopia or nearsightedness.”
Not to mention, many kids who fail school screenings often don’t get care due to miscommunication or clerical error.
The Pediatrician Will Spot Vision Problems
Quinn notes that many pediatricians have the ability to check a child’s eyes during early well-child visits. And they often do. But they are not eye specialists. So, while the pediatrician can potentially spot problems, parents shouldn’t rely on them to all the time or necessarily book that appointment if there’s a lingering concern.
Carrots Help Kids See
“This is a great example of a persistent myth that has been disproven and yet still seems to find an audience of credibility,” Quinn says. “A healthy diet is critical for childhood development, and nutrition impacts the health of the eye, but eating carrots is not a requirement for healthy vision.”
Eye Exercises Can Cure Bad Vision
There are myths more pernicious than the sticky old wives tale about carrots. Some modern snake-oil types suggest that vision problems can be “cured” at home with semi-magical exercises with purchase of a special book or system. The problem, Quinn explains, is not so much with the idea that eye exercises can help vision. In fact, research has shown that they can help treat specific issues. The problem is that most people don’t know how to properly do exercises or, more importantly, how to monitor the effects.
“If you read about a cure on the internet, and you have a treatment regime that is not otherwise under the supervision of a doctor, then I think every parent and patient should use extreme caution,” Quinn stresses.
Glasses Cause Dependence
The idea that glasses cause weakness is a superstition that some parents actually have. The thought is that the more a kid works to see, the stronger their eyes will become.
“This just isn’t how the eye works,” says Quinn. He notes that children’s vision is not made worse by correcting underlying problems. He notes there is plenty of evidence to refute these kinds of claims but acknowledges there are also plenty of crazy ideas about childhood vision that can be reinforced by an internet search. It’s up to the parent to do due diligence.
If a claim seems particularly surprising, there is nothing wrong with taking the idea to an optometrist who can help separate fact from fiction.
Screens Ruin Children’s Vision
Quinn is unequivocal on screens “ruining” a child’s vision. “The simple answer is no,” he explains. However, he points out that the final verdict is still pending on whether or not the light from screens causes serious damage to the eye.
That says, he notes that there is evidence that the more time people spend with screens, the more likely it is they may suffer from eye strain. Luckily the AOA offers some guidelines for screen time: it’s called the “20 20 20” rule.
“Every 20 minutes, take at least a 20-second break and look at an object 20 feet away,” Quinn says.