When Should Your Child Have a First Eye Exam?

Caring for eyes at an early age

You want to get your young children off to a good start in every way — and that includes their eye health. But when is the right time to start having your child’s eyes checked? Babies and toddlers can’t read an eye chart, after all. It’s best to start early.

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It’s important not to delay eye exams for young infants and children because some early eye problems can affect vision for life. Finding a problem early can keep a minor issue from becoming something major (and harder to treat).

Elias Traboulsi, MD, MEd, Head of Cleveland Clinic’s Department of Pediatric Ophthalmology, emphasizes that eye exams aren’t merely a way to know whether your child needs glasses. Like regular exams with a pediatrician, eye exams are about preventive care.

When do children need eye exams?

Dr. Traboulsi recommends a comprehensive eye exam by an eye care professional by age 1, to be repeated before kindergarten in children without any evident eye problems.

These exams become much more important in children who:

  • Have a sibling or a parent with a major eye problem, such as crossed or turned eye(s) (strabismus) or lazy eye (amblyopia)
  • Have an eye problem detected by a pediatrician
  • Are suspected by parents of having an eye issue

“Even if there are no obvious symptoms, your child may still have a problem with his vision,” he says.

Early exams may head off serious problems

Undiagnosed conditions or abnormalities can lead to vision loss. However, it’s possible to reverse some problems if they’re caught early, Dr. Traboulsi says.

A classic example is lazy eye. Kids with this condition have one eye that is weaker than the other.

One of the most common vision problems in children, lazy eye typically responds well to treatment. This may include an eye patch, eye drops or eyeglasses.

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Another example is crossed eyes, which involves one or both eyes turning inward or outward. This can require special eyewear or an eye patch.

So how do you know there’s a problem or your child needs to see a doctor?

Here are four key tips that will help you make sure your child has the best eye care from the start.

1. Don’t wait for school

If you have questions about your young child’s vision, don’t hesitate to schedule an eye exam.

Most children have their vision tested before they start elementary school. But Dr. Traboulsi says it’s ideal to have your child’s eyes tested well before they start kindergarten or preschool.

In fact, he recommends an eye exam in the child’s first year of life.

2. Consider your family history

“While it’s ideal for all kids to have their eyes tested, it’s even more important if a child’s brothers or sisters have vision problems,” says Dr. Traboulsi.

As with many other health-related conditions, your child is more likely to have vision problems if they run in your family. So it’s best to start monitoring it early on.

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3. See an eye specialist

As you know, your pediatrician has specialized training for treating children. By the same token, a pediatric ophthalmologist specializes in detecting and treating children’s eye problems.

With kid-friendly tools and testing, he or she can pinpoint problems — even if your child hasn’t learned how to talk or doesn’t yet know the alphabet.

4. Go with your gut

Dr. Traboulsi says it’s very important for parents to trust their instincts. After all, you know your child best.

In fact, parents are often the first ones to notice signs of trouble. “If a mom says something is wrong with her child’s eyes or vision and I don’t find anything in the initial exam, I always go back and test again,” he says.

Your doctor may not find a problem at first. But if you still have concerns, keep working to pinpoint the problem. Discuss the signs you’re seeing with your child’s doctor or get a second opinion, if necessary, Dr. Traboulsi advises.

Following these tips will help you protect your child’s vision and promote healthy eyesight for life.