NEW figures that short sightedness amongst UK children has more than doubled since the 1960s, with almost 20% of under 16s now living with the condition, make eye watering reading for parents and carers.
Moreover experts believe it is environmental factors that are driving the change, rather than genetics.
So it is more important than ever that parents know the signs to look out for in children and how to promote positive eye health.
Dr. Andy Hepworth from Essilor.co.uk, the world’s leading corrective lens manufacturer that supplies opticians throughout the UK, offers this advice on why eye tests are important for children, some of the key signs to look out for regarding common eye conditions and tips on general eye health for children.
“Sometimes you are able to tell if your child is suffering from poor vision through a number of behavioural signs.
“If your child often complains of headaches or their eyes feel strained, they may be overexerting their eyes in an effort to see clearly. Similarly, if they often rub their eyes, this could also be due to eye fatigue. Itchy eyes could also be a sign of allergic conjunctivitis.
“If you notice your child sits in front of the TV more closely than normal, they could have trouble seeing clearly. This could be a sign of myopia, or short-sightedness. Alternatively, if they hold a book closer than normal it could be a sign of hypermetropia, or long-sightedness.
“Another sign could be an unusually clumsy child, or one that has particular problems with hand-eye co-ordination. This can sometimes be due to poor vision.
“You may notice that your child has a lazy eye. This is a childhood condition where vision may not develop properly and usually happens in one eye. It is also known as amblyopia and happens because one or both eyes are unable to build a strong link to the brain. Around 1 in 50 children will develop a lazy eye.
“Many eye conditions are common and are easily treatable, but it helps if you’re able to identify them early. Many of these conditions can be picked up with a routine eye examination.
“Eye problems are much easier to treat while a child’s vision is still developing. Children themselves may not recognise when they have an issue with their sight. It’s important that as a parent, you’re able to recognise when something isn’t quite right.”
What Is Short Sightedness?
The condition, known as myopia, is caused when the eyeballs grow a little too long, affecting the visual performance; distant objects will appear blurred, while objects that are closer can be seen more clearly.
Top Tips To Promote Healthy Eye Sight
● Encourage children to spend at least an hour a day (preferably two) outside in daylight
● Avoid overuse of electronic media before the age of two to avoid potential adverse health and developmental effects
● For children older than two, limit device usage to one hour per day, besides school work (for those aged two to five, use apps/sites that encourage interaction between parent and child)
● Observe a two-minute break after every 30 minutes spent using digital devices and avoid digital screens for at least an hour before bedtime
● Design outdoor activities that ensure the coordination of both eyes from far away and close up. Ball games, eye spy, hide and seek are good suggestions, as is time spent on bicycles or scooters.
● Schedule regular eye tests with an optician to detect any changes in the eye or vision
● If you think something has changed in your child’s vision, take them for an eye examination at your local optician.
Importance of eye examinations
Routine eye checks are often offered soon after your child has been born so that any issues can be picked up and managed straight away.
Your child’s eyes can be checked at multiple stages as they grow up. Eye tests may be suggested within 72 hours of birth, between 6-8 weeks, between 1-2 years and between 4-5 years.
What will an eye test involve?
Numerous tests can be carried out with children to check vision and eye health. The optician will ask about the child’s health, activities, daily routine and any problems or concerns. If the child is old enough, they will probably talk with him or her, too. This can help them feel more comfortable.
The physical eye exam will include vision, pupil and eye movement tests:
A refraction test is carried out by a local optician and is used to assess how well someone can see at different distances and whether corrective spectacles are needed.
Before the test, children may be given eye drops that widen pupils so that the back of the eye can be seen more clearly; these can take around 30 minutes to activate, during which time children can play whilst waiting.
Children are then asked to look at lights and/or read letters or shapes off a chart, whilst different lenses are placed in front of their eyes to study their impact on vision.
Colour vision test:
Using the Ishihara test, children are asked to look at images made up of dots in two different colours. If colour vision is normal, children will be able to recognise a letter or number within the image. Those who can’t tell the difference between the two colours won’t be able to see a letter or number, which can indicate a colour vision problem.
Checking how the eyes respond to light, the optician will shine a light into each eye for a moment to check that the pupil reacts normally.
Eye movement test:
The optician will move a toy or different object in different directions to check how a child’s eyes follow it. Peripheral (side) vision is also checked.
“Although we can’t yet influence genetic disorders that lead to myopia amongst children, the physical environment in which they evolve can be monitored and improved to help hinder the onset of it.
“As well as undertaking regular eye tests from the age of two to ensure their vision is developing properly, take note of anything different in their behaviour, both at home and at school. If they complain of headaches, tired eyes, or if they sit closer to the TV than usual or complain about difficulty seeing the board at school, it is a good idea to take them for an eye test with a local optician.”
Although myopia can develop in very young children as a result of genetic markers, recent findings show that the rise in myopia amongst primary children over the last 50 years is a result of a combination of controllable lifestyle factors, including decreased time spent outdoors and increased near-work activities – factors that can be addressed with a view to slow down the onset of the condition.
With today’s lifestyles, children can spend a lot of time indoors at home and in classrooms, which, reduces the need to focus on objects further away, causing the eye to lose its focusing power for distance vision. It also reduces their exposure to daylight and vitamin D, which has been found to have a protective effect against myopia, and subsequently increases exposure to fluorescent lighting indoors which can encourage short-sightedness.
International ophthalmologists have also found that excessive screen time on digital devices impacts the condition - reducing the amount people blink, which can contribute to a change in eye shape that triggers myopia. And whilst the devices themselves don’t emit harmful radiation, the need to hold the screen closer to the eyes to read does increase the risk of developing short-sightedness by up to eight times.
"Children themselves may not recognise when they have an issue with their sight. Its important that as a parent, youre able to recognise when something isnt quite right."
Dr Andy Hepworth