Much attention is never paid to children’s vision problems, not until it gets pretty worse. Many people will rather caution a child for sitting too close to the tv than have the child go for a routine eye checkup. 

But vision problems in children do exist, and they can even go as far as affecting the child’s academic performance. Moreover, sight is one of the five major senses of the human body, and it’s arguably the most important to some. According to research, our vision mediates 80 to 85% of our perception, learning, cognition, and activities.

And for young children, this means that good eyesight also contributes to their academic performance. Bad eyesight can prevent your child from learning effectively in school. So what exactly are these vision problems, and how can they be prevented or managed in children?

Common vision problems in children

They are disorders/diseases that affect a child’s vision and will likely lead to vision loss if left untreated. These diseases may affect any part of the eye such as the cornea, retina, iris, lens, pupil, and even the nerves of the eye (optic nerve).

Vision problems in children are generally classified into two broad groups – refractive errors like myopia and non-refractive errors like glaucoma. Unlike non-refractive errors, refractive errors result in blurry images due to the inability of the shape of the eye to appropriately bend light which is important for clear vision.

Below are common vision problems in children:

1. Amblyopia or lazy eye: 

When the eyes do not develop properly, the quality of vision will reduce and birth a condition like amblyopia. This condition usually develops from birth and affects just one eye, however in some rare cases, both eyes are affected.

Amblyopia occurs when the brain and eye cells are unable to work together like they should, causing the brain to favour one eye. As time goes on, the other eye grows weaker and worsens.

2. Glaucoma: 

This disease damages the eye’s optic nerve due to the buildup of intraocular pressure in the eyes. Glaucoma is more common in adults; however, it can also affect children (childhood glaucoma) and newborns or children below three years (congenital glaucoma). 

Because glaucoma can often develop without any symptoms, it’s important that children go for routine eye checkups.

3. Nystagmus: 

It is an involuntary and rapid movement of the eyes up and down. This repetitive movement can also be sideways and in a circular manner. The rapid movement worsens when the eye is focused in a particular direction. 

Nystagmus usually occurs in both eyes, and it can affect a child’s balance and coordination. Though it has no cure, children’s vision can be improved with glasses or contacts.

4. Pediatric ptosis: 

This is a condition in which the upper eyelid is lower than it should be. It is referred to as drooping. A droopy eyelid can prevent the passage of light to the retina in the back of the eye, which will, in turn, impair vision.

5. Crossed eyes or strabismus: 

Here, the eyes do not align. They do not look in the same direction at the same time. Some people refer to it as half-past four in pidgin.

Strabismus is often mistaken as amblyopia but they’re two different conditions that can occur without the other. However, strabismus is a usual cause of amblyopia, that is, a child with strabismus might most likely develop amblyopia as well.

6. Colour blindness: 

Here, a child is unable to accurately identify a colour or distinguish between colours. It is usually detected in nursery kids when they start learning to identify colours.

Colour blindness is a genetic disorder. However, it is not a severe defect as it can be easily resolved or managed.

7. Cataract: 

This condition is more common in adults but it also occurs in children – some children are born with it and this is termed congenital cataracts. 

It occurs when changes in the lens of the eye cause it to become less clear which results in cloudy vision. Cataract in children is common in poorer countries, and it’s often corrected through surgery.

8. Refractive errors: They consist of three conditions:

  • Short-sightedness (myopia) refers to your child’s ability to see near objects while distant objects are blurry.
  • Long-sightedness (hyperopia) is the reverse of myopia. Here, the child’s ability to see distant objects is intact, but near objects are blurry.
  • Astigmatism: Objects appear blurry at any distance in this condition.

Note: Conditions such as conjunctivitis (pinkeye or apollo) affect vision temporarily and are usually not a cause of alarm. 

However, if your child has pinkeye or apollo and it doesn’t seem to be going away, then inform the doctor right away because complications can permanently damage eyesight. Bacteria, viruses, and irritants like pollen, dust, or mold are common causes of conjunctivitis.

Causes of bad eyesight

Kids do not randomly develop vision problems. There are several factors responsible for bad eyesight in children. Below are some causes:

  • Some vision problems in kids are a result of the kid’s developmental makeup. An example of such is hyperopia caused by the diameter of the eyeball being smaller than usual.
  • Genetics: Vision problems are also genetically inherited, for example, myopia. A child with a family history of eye problems is at a higher risk of developing one. On the other hand, genetic conditions like albinism, strabismus, lazy eye, and nystagmus also lead to visual impairment.
  • Inadequate nutrition: Proper nutrition is essential for maintaining a healthy vision. Children’s diet should contain nutrients such as Vitamin A, C, and zinc important for good vision. Moreover, vitamin A deficiency is one of the leading causes of blindness in children.
  • Sitting too close to the television or computer screen can strain your child’s eyes. Not reading with a sufficient amount of light can also lead to eye strain. Though there’s no sufficient evidence to prove that these can lead to permanent eye damage, they do lead to eye strain which can be pretty uncomfortable. Read more about if screens or dim light can cause eye damage here.
  • Neurological disorders resulting from brain injury or infections such as meningitis, cytomegalovirus, and brain tumours can lead to vision problems.

Signs and symptoms of vision problems

By simply observing the signs and paying attention to the symptoms, you can tell if your child might have a problem with their sight.

Signs are manifestations of a problem that you can easily detect, and they are objective. Symptoms are your child’s complaints, and they’re subjective. The common signs and symptoms include:

  • Frequent headaches
  • Squinting to see
  • Teary eyes
  • Redness of the eye
  • Itchy eye
  • Inflammation and pain in the eye
  • Misaligned eyes
  • Light sensitivity
  • Blurry vision
  • Consistent rubbing of the eyes
  • Droopy eyes.

Eyecare tips for kids

Below are several ways you and your child can appropriately care for the eyes:

  1. Teach your child to take naps: A long school day of staring at the board while reading or writing and taking computer lessons can be stressful to their eyes. Hence, it’s important they take a nap when they return home to help rest their eyes.  
  2. Make use of eyeshield: In the tropics where it’s mostly sunny, sunglasses come in handy because overexposure to the sun’s ultraviolet rays can damage the eye.
  3. Practice personal hygiene: Due to the delicate nature of the eyes, they can easily get infected by germs. To prevent this, teach young children to avoid rubbing their eyes with their hands. Teach them to also practice frequent hand washing.
  4. Avoid using screen devices for too long: It’s not uncommon to find children spending long hours playing video games or watching their favourite TV shows. This should be discouraged and while at it, you can also introduce them to the 20-20-20 rule which says to take a break every 20 minutes while focusing on an object 20 feet away for just 20 seconds. 
  5. Eat eye-healthy: Include foods that contain nutrients essential for healthy eyes. Nutrients such as vitamin A, vitamin E, and C, zinc, lutein are antioxidants that help in preventing free radicals from damaging the eyes. They are found in foods like green leafy vegetables, fruits, dairy products, egg yolks, nuts, and fish. 
  6. Encourage outdoor activities: Children tend to spend less time playing outdoors in this era of video games and computers. This should not be the case because a good exposure to sunlight and fresh air can be beneficial to their eyes. Research shows that outdoor activities can help children avoid eye diseases, particularly myopia.
  7. Use of safety eyewear: While it is great to encourage your kids to engage in outdoor activities and sports, be sure to protect their eyes from injuries by using safety eyewear.
  8. Avoid cosmetics on the eye: Some traditions apply chemical cosmetics like tiro or kajal to their kids’ eyes for aesthetic purposes and other mythical reasons – this practice is unhealthy and should be stopped. According to the CDC, tiro contains lead, a highly toxic chemical damaging to children’s health.

Source: Photo/Pediatric Environmental Health Specialty Unit, Boston Children’s Hospital

  1. Encourage healthy reading habits: Provide an adequate amount of light when they are reading, and discourage dim reading lamps or torchlight. Reading with dim lamps at an early age can cause eye strain. 
  2. Regular eye checkups: Children should have their first eye exam at 6 months of age to ensure the normal development of their eyes. Always inform your child’s ophthalmologist/optometrist of any signs and symptoms.  

Note: An ophthalmologist diagnoses and treats eye infections and diseases; they can also carry out eye surgeries. In contrast, optometrists specialize in prescribing and dispensing corrective lenses; however, they can also diagnose and treat certain eye diseases. 

Can Kids Outgrow Bad Eyesight?

The truth is, children can outgrow certain vision problems, particularly those caused by changes in the shape of the eye during development, for example, lazy eyes, hyperopia, myopia, and astigmatism. As children grow, the shape of their eyes improves, and this condition eventually goes away.

This explains why some children eventually get rid of their prescription glasses. However, this isn’t the case for every child, explaining why other children wear glasses from childhood to adulthood.

The Gist

Vision problems are disorders or diseases that affect eyesight and they’re experienced by both children and adults. Early diagnosis often helps in managing these conditions, especially in glaucoma and myopia. 

However, this means that you’ll have to keep an eye out for any signs and symptoms your child presents with. Apart from complaints about the eyes, poor academic performance is also an indicator of bad eyesight in children. 

Perhaps, the easiest and fastest way to ensure an early diagnosis is to take your child for regular eye examinations.