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Eye Exams for Kids: What to Expect

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Young girl accompanied by her father during eye exam

Just like adults, kids need regular eye exams to help them grow up with healthy eyes and strong vision. But how are children’s eye exams different, and when should you take your little ones to an eye doctor for the first time?

Below, you’ll learn why children’s eye exams are necessary, how often your kids should have them, and what an eye doctor should do to examine your children’s eyes effectively.

Why Do Children’s Eye Exams Matter?

Some parents may be under the impression that their kids don’t need eye exams unless something is obviously amiss—but by the time you notice a problem with your child’s eyes, it is most likely already affecting them negatively. Conversely, trained eye doctors can identify many eye health and vision problems and take steps to address them before your child’s vision is compromised.

You also can’t rely on your kids to tell you when there’s something wrong with their eyes. Children who have had vision problems from birth often don’t know what normal vision looks like and assume the way they see the world is normal—even when it isn’t.

Common Childhood Vision Problems Include:

The most common vision problem in school-aged children is blurry vision caused by refractive errors. While refractive errors are common, early diagnosis and intervention are necessary to reduce future risks of long term effects. 

Common refractive errors that present in childhood include:

  • Amblyopia: This condition is caused by the breakdown in how the brain and eye work together. This could be caused by a large difference in spectacle prescriptions between the two eyes or caused by misalignment of the eyes or obstruction within the visual pathway. 
  • Strabismus: This condition is a potential complication of untreated amblyopia that causes one eye to face in a different direction than the other.
  • Myopia: Commonly known as nearsightedness, this refractive error is most common in childhood and makes it difficult to focus on faraway objects.
  • Hyperopia: A refractive error that causes the opposite effect of myopia—making it harder to focus on objects up close or far away depending on the prescription. 
  • Astigmatism: A vision problem that can cause blurry vision at various distances. Astigmatism may result from irregularities in either the surface or the lens of the eye.

Some of the problems listed above can cause problems for children in school when left undiagnosed or uncorrected. For example, a child with myopia may struggle to read the board at the front of their classroom, and their academic performance can suffer as a result.

Research has shown that as much as 80% of all learning occurs visually, so if your child is struggling with their eyesight  they can be at a major disadvantage. Taking your child for eye exams as recommended by their eye doctor is an excellent way to identify vision problems and eye health issues early. Once your eye doctor finds evidence of a problem, they will work with you to find an effective solution that meets your child’s specific needs.

Are Vision Screenings Enough?

In a word: no. Many children receive vision screenings in school, but these are not the same as comprehensive children’s eye exams. Vision screenings are often performed by people who are not eye doctors and lack the expertise to diagnose vision problems or signs of eye disease.

What Happens During Eye Exams for Kids?

Most eye doctors who perform eye exams specifically for children work hard to create a kid-friendly environment where your little ones can relax during their appointment. However, they should also perform thorough examinations that leave no stone unturned when looking for common childhood eye problems.

If you’ve taken your child to a skilled eye doctor, you can reasonably expect the following:

  • Questions about your child’s eyes: Your child’s eye doctor may have questions for you and your child about how they use their eyes. Most eye doctors will direct more challenging questions to parents, and try to only ask children simple questions they can answer easily.
  • Tests that assess specific visual tasks: Most childhood eye exams involve non-invasive tests, but the eye doctor will still need to assess your child’s ability to perform certain tasks. Your eye doctor will likely collect information about how your child’s eyes focus at different distances, coordinate with each other, recognize colours, and more.
  • A gentle examination of your child’s eyes: Your eye doctor may need a closer look at certain parts of your child’s eyes—such as the pupil, iris, and cornea. As with the tests, this part of the exam should be gentle and non-invasive unless there is a serious issue that requires a more involved approach.
  • An updated prescription: No children’s eye exam should end without an updated prescription for your little one. Your eye doctor will tell you whether or not they need corrective lenses and specify the prescription strength so you can purchase the appropriate glasses or contacts for your child before leaving.
Young boy covering one eye with eye exam chart in the background

When Should Parents Schedule Eye Exams for Kids?

Now that you know what happens during a children’s eye exam and why such exams are vital for your child’s healthy development, it’s time to schedule their next (or maybe their first) exam. But when should you book them in for an appointment?

In Alberta, yearly eye exams for children under the age of 19 are covered by Alberta Health. The Canadian Association of Optometry recommends that children see the eye doctor for comprehensive eye exams as follows:

  • Once between 6 and 9 months old
  • Once between 2 and 5 years old
  • Once a year between the ages of 6 and 19 years old

However, each pair of eyes is different, so your child’s eye doctor may suggest more frequent visits. Always defer to the eye doctor’s judgment in these matters; they’ve had a chance to see your child’s unique eyes up close and they’ll know what’s best.

For more information on children’s eye exams or to speak with someone on our team who can help you book an appointment for your child, contact us today.

Written by Dr. Asim Prasad

Dr. Asim Prasad is a native Calgarian who earned his Bachelor’s of Science degree in Vision Science and Doctor of Optometry degree from Nova Southeastern University in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida in 2008. Before becoming an optometrist, Dr. Prasad earned a bachelor’s degree in Environmental Science from the University of Alberta. After working in the environmental science industry for a short time, Dr. Prasad decided to pursue his true passion: optometry.
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