The most common vision problem affecting young children is amblyopia, which affects 3% of children under the age of eight. It occurs when the brain sends signals to one eye, and allows neural pathways to develop in connection to that eye, but not to the other eye. The condition is very treatable, but effective treatment relies on early detection, and children are not always able to communicate to their parents that they are experiencing vision difficulty.
The three kinds of amblyopia include refractive, strabismic, and deprivation. Refractive amblyopia occurs when one eye is affected by moderate to severe astigmatism, nearsightedness, or farsightedness, while the other eye maintains relatively normal vision. The brain begins to favor the stronger eye, and neural pathways between the brain and the weaker eye begin to diminish, meaning that the child’s brain trains itself to only use the stronger eye. Vision in the weaker eye may not develop in this case. Strabismic amblyopia occurs when the child’s eyes are not aligned normally, and one eye crosses either inward or outward. And deprivation amblyopia develops when there is a presence of cataracts in one or both eyes which are present at birth or shortly after birth as a result of childhood diseases, trauma, or steroid usage.
Symptoms of amblyopia are hard to detect, especially since many young children may not realize that something is wrong, or may not know to communicate a vision problem. Parents, daycare providers, and teaches can watch out for misaligned eyes, also known as strabismus, frequent squinting in order to see, frequent tilting or turning of the head in order to see, or closing or covering one eye, usually the weaker eye.
If you notice any of these symptoms of amblyopia, take your child to a pediatric ophthalmologist for an examination. These exams are usually very easy and painless for young children. Your child will be asked to sit in a chair and look at images ahead of her, identifying what she sees. Eye drops may be used for dilation and images may be taken of the eye, and the process is generally smooth, though pediatric ophthalmologists understand that wiggling may be common!
Once amblyopia is diagnosed, a number of treatment options exist. First, barriers to good vision in the weaker eye are removed. If your child has cataracts, he may need surgery to remove them, but in the case of astigmatism, hyperopia, or myopia, a prescription for eyeglasses is necessary. Your child’s doctor may also recommend wearing an eye patch over the stronger eye for several hours each day, in order to give the brain a chance to develop communication with the weaker eye. In some cases, surgery is necessary if patches and corrective eyewear are insufficient.
The good news is that if amblyopia is discovered before the age of five, the outlook is very good for amblyopia correction. Pay attention to your child’s habits, and if you spot any signs or symptoms, taking your child in for a quick exam is the best way to get started on treatment.