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Harvard Commentaries
Harvard Commentaries
Reviewed by the Faculty of Harvard Medical School

A Parent's Life A Parent's Life

Protect Your Child's Sight

April 03, 2014

By Claire McCarthy M.D.

Boston Children's Hospital

Most of us probably take our sight for granted. We may not think we need to pay attention to or take care of our eyes.

But if we want to have good vision for a lifetime, we need to pay plenty of attention to our eyes and their health. To be sure that you are doing everything you can to help your child's vision, here are some things to "keep an eye on."

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Eye Exams

Babies should have their eyes checked in the newborn period, and again between ages 6 months and a year. Your pediatrician can do the simple exam. Children should get a more formal vision test starting between 3 and 4 years of age (as soon as they can cooperate), and regularly during school years. Don't shrug it off if your child ever complains of trouble seeing. Get it checked out right away!

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Ultraviolet (UV) Radiation

The UV radiation in the sun doesn't just put us at risk for skin cancer; it can also cause damage to the eyes. 

Too much UV light can increase the risk of cataracts, macular degeneration and melanoma of the eye (uveal cancer). The damage adds up, so it's really important to start early to protect your child's eyesight. So, after slathering on the sunscreen, reach for the sunglasses.

Here are some tips from Prevent Blindness America for choosing the best sunglasses for your child:

  • Look for sunglasses that block 99%-100% of UV rays.
  • Make sure they fit! They won't do anything if they fall off.
  • Choose lenses that are impact-resistant and made of polycarbonate, not glass (for obvious safety reasons).
  • Make sure that the lenses aren't scratched or damaged.
  • Consider the wraparound kind, which protect not only the eyes but the delicate skin around them.

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Injury Prevention

Eye injuries can be devastating. To help prevent them:

    • Keep chemicals and sprays out of the reach of young children. If a chemical or spray does get into the eyes, flush them out immediately with lots and lots of water, and call your doctor or local poison center. The person you talk to will want to know  the name of the chemical or spray. So have it handy when you call. It will help them give you the best medical advice. 
    • Be aware that paper clips, pencils, scissors, bungee cords, wire coat hangers and rubber bands commonly cause eye injuries. It's not realistic to say that you should keep these away from your child, but be watchful when your child is around these objects. 
    • Have your child wear eye protection when playing sports or games that can lead to eye injuries. These include baseball, basketball, football, racquet sports, soccer, hockey, lacrosse or paintball. Talk to your doctor about the best kind of eye protection.

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Eating for Eye Health

Foods that have nutrients that can strengthen the eyes and decrease the risk of macular degeneration include:

  • Citrus fruits
  • Vegetable oils
  • Nuts
  • Whole grains
  • Dark green leafy vegetables
  • Cold-water fish

All of these foods are healthy for you generally, which brings up another point about eating for eye health: Maintain a healthy weight. When your weight is healthy, you're less likely to get diabetes, which can cause a serious eye problem (diabetic retinopathy). So there's another reason to eat your fruits and vegetables, and exercise!

The American Academy of Ophthalmology suggests that you call your doctor if your child has any of the following:

  • A misalignment of the eyes, even if only occasional (a sign of an eye muscle imbalance)
  • A persistent head tilt (another sign of an eye muscle imbalance)
  • A jerking back and forth (nystagmus) in one or both eyes
  • Unusual sensitivity to light
  • Eye redness or discharge
  • Tearing
  • Squinting
  • A droopy eyelid

For more information about eyes and eye health, visit eyeSmart or Prevent Blindness America. The more you know, the more you can help your child see everything the world has to show him or her.

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Claire McCarthy, M.D., a senior medical editor for Harvard Health Publications, is an assistant professor in pediatrics at Harvard Medical School.  She is an attending physician and Medical Communications Editor at Children's Hospital Boston.

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