Little Matteo’s right eye was turning inward and getting stuck, and the condition was worsening every day.
His parents — Hilary and Matt Meurer of the North Side — suspected their 2-year-old might have lazy eye, so they took him to a doctor, who discovered that Matteo was farsighted. His eyes worked so hard to see things that were close up that the right eye, the one with worse vision, got fatigued and wandered. So, Matteo has started wearing bendable toddler glasses.
More and more younger children — preschool age and even babies less than a year old — are being diagnosed with vision problems and need glasses, experts say. According to a 2011 study published in the medical journal Pediatrics, up to one out of 20 preschool-age American children has a vision problem.
This may always have been the case, but medical professionals and parents are catching the problems earlier than they did in previous generations, says Dr. Christin Sylvester, a pediatric ophthalmologist with Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC.
“I think it’s probably better awareness and better preschool vision screening,” says Sylvester, clinical assistant professor of ophthalmology for the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. “I think that pediatric offices are also doing a better job screening, as well.”
Parents sometimes come to Sylvester in shock because their child failed a routine vision exam, and they didn’t know the child had a problem. Very young children can’t verbally express eyesight struggles well, but parents can look for symptoms. These include things like sitting too close to the television, squinting and having misaligned eyes.
The Meurers noticed the seemingly lazy eye on their son, and also that Matteo seemed clumsy because he would bump into things a lot. Before, they attributed that to normal toddler klutziness, but now that he’s wearing glasses, his coordination has improved significantly because his depth-perception is improved.
“When he started wearing glasses, he got instantly better,” Hilary Meurer says. Matteo loves his glasses, even though he is the only child in his peer group who wears them. “I was prepared for a battle of trying to convince him to wear them.”
Dr. Andrea Thau, vice president of the American Optometric Association, says it is important for parents to rule out vision problems when they see symptoms. If parents have vision problems, their kids are more likely to get them.
“It’s amazing to me that so many parents just assume that kids can see well,” says Thau, an optometrist in New York City. “Children don’t know that they have an eye problem. “Vision is the primary sense we use in learning,” she says.
The most common problems in young children’s eyes are farsightedness, where their close-up vision is fuzzy, Sylvester says. The good news is that nearsightedness — where distance vision is blurry — tends to worsen with age, while farsightedness often improves. Farsighted children may completely outgrow their vision problem, she says.
Premature babies can be very nearsighted and have retinopathy, which causes problems in a developing retina, Sylvester says.
The American Optometric Association recommends babies get a full vision exam when they are 6 months and 12 months old, then annually after that, with either a pediatric ophthalmologist or optometrist. Basic vision screenings, like those done at schools and at standard pediatrician well visits, don’t give a thorough enough picture of the eye’s health and functioning, Thau says.
“The screenings are inherently flawed in the way they are done,” Thau says. Screenings are helpful, though, because they can catch some significant problems, she says.
The issue of when and where young children get eye exams can be controversial. Dr. Geoffrey Bradford, who is on the executive committee for ophthalmology at the American Academy of Pediatrics, says the standard vision assessment done at annual pediatric visits is usually sufficient. These tests have become more sophisticated over the years, with eye charts designed just for preschoolers and with the use of photoscreening devices, he says.
Parents need to bring up any concerns about their child’s vision with the doctor at the visit, Bradford says.
Early treatment for vision problems is critical, Bradford says, because problems become harder to reverse with age, and correction can prevent permanent damage. Serious eye problems that begin at birth or infancy include misalignment of the two eyes, cataracts and amblyopia, which is often called “lazy eye.”
“About 5 percent of young children have severe problems that must be addressed as early as possible … in order for treatment to provide the rosiest outcomes,” says Bradford, professor of ophthalmology and pediatrics at West Virginia University in Morgantown.
If parents are concerned their children will be teased about wearing glasses, Thau assures them that doesn’t happen much, because glasses are more stylish and attractive now. Some kids beg for glasses even if they don’t need them because the cute, colorful glasses have become a status symbol.
Miraflex is a popular brand of toddler glasses, because they come in flexible, bendable frames that resist breaking, and have break-proof polycarbonate lenses. Each style of Miraflex, which stay perched on your toddler’s ears with a strap, comes in 25 different colors, and the kids love them, says UPMC optician Sarah Shaw.
“Kids are definitely into color,” she says.
While little kids who come in to the UPMC Eye Center in Children’s at Pine Center might be hesitant at first, after they try on the glasses and see clearly, the kids often love them.
“I think nowadays, glasses are more popular,” Shaw says. “I think it’s more of a fashion thing.”
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