The American Academy of Ophthalmologists (AAO) recommends that babies have a comprehensive eye exam between six months and a year of age. Seem young? Maybe, but there is so much that is happening in a baby's development, particularly with her eyes, that it's important to make sure it's on track.
It's not like a baby can tell you that there is a problem! They also recommend that at three years of age, children should have another exam (often checking for visual acuity and eye alignment as well as focus) and then again around five or six (early school entrance) to ensure eyes are disease-free and aligned properly.
When children are school-aged, they should be screened regularly, and receive an eye exam every two years (unless there is no vision issue), as eye development can change and eye issues can affect classroom learning as well as life functioning.
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So what should you look for when looking for exams for your children?
The most important thing is to know the difference between a screening and an exam. A screening typically looks to see that distance lengths are appropriate for proper vision and that there is no need for visual correction (nearsightedness is typically the most common vision issue needing correction in school-aged children), but an exam looks deeper and examines the health of the eye as well.
An optometrist is able to detect issues and correct for vision. They can do refraction of the eyes (to look for problems with focus and sight) and can generally look for signs of disease in the eyes. Ophthalmologists are medical doctors who specialize in all eye care aspects, including management and surgery as needed. The two often work together for most eye care issues.
When looking for your child, look for pediatric specialists. My son saw his first ophthalmologist when he was 10 months old, and I was so surprised at the difference between a pediatric ophthalmologist and a non-pediatric one. Pediatric specialists are more used to working with children, and understand that children are often aversive to the many things they sometimes have to do as part of their exam.
Be sure that whoever sees your child is aware of any family history (for instance, my son is being watched for glaucoma, which his grandfather had, and he is at risk for) and make sure that the appointment time will be for when your child is typically alert and happy. It's very difficult to assess a child's eyes when it would normally be nap time, and it's important to relay this information to whomever is making appointments for your child.
Before the appointment, check the office out. Is it child-friendly? It's important to be so, because often pediatric eye exams take a while (as is often the case when working with children) and the wait could be long. If the office is not inviting and child-friendly, it may be worth looking to see if there is another option. There's nothing worse than being in a pediatric office with staff that doesn't even seem to like children, much less work well with them!
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And, ask about the process and inventory of the office should your child need correction. Investigate their eyewear. If they allow, and you have time, take your child with you to let them become acclimated. Show them what they may be looking at, depending on how the appointment goes, so they are not fearful of the outcome of the exam.
A little homework can go a long way, especially when it comes to something as important as eye care!