Don't wait until your children are reading or staring at computers all day to get their eyes checked. Every year spent straining to see out of one good eye can further compromise vision in the other.
Children should see an eye doctor while they're still young enough to correct vision problems that can lead to trouble concentrating at school and partial blindness later in life, say eye doctors.
The earlier a problem is discovered, the faster a young person's eye can be rehabilitated and the better chance they'll recover 20/20 vision.
If left untreated, amblyopia, a term that describes vision difficulties caused when the brain favors one eye over the other (commonly called "lazy eye") is nearly impossible to correct after age 10, said Karen Preston, a Redmond optometrist and co-chairwoman of the Washington State Children's Vision Coalition.
"We don't want to see kids for the first time at 5 if they have a vision problem," Preston said.
Last month, the Washington state legislature adopted a resolution urging parents to schedule vision checks for their children before they start school.
Cataracts, misalignment of the eyes -- which can lead one eye to wander -- or focusing difficulties can cause amblyopia, which is most often treated with a combination of patching and glasses. Wearing an eye patch over the good eye encourages the brain to use the lazy eye, helping to restore vision.
At less than a year old, Henry Rouse, now 14 months, was diagnosed with an astigmatism after his mother noticed his right lid drooping a bit. His mother, Chrissie Rouse, has the same condition in her left eye, but wasn't diagnosed until middle school.
"At that point they tried giving me at patch, but as an eighth-grader, there was no way I was going to wear a patch to school," Rouse said.
At Henry's young age, the condition, "hasn't had the time to do damage," said Preston, who treats the Sammamish toddler.
Plus, a little patching and glasses now will spare Henry the ordeal of wearing a patch to class when he's older, Rouse said.
"If his classmates are meeting him with glasses, then they don't know any different," said Rouse, a former fourth-grade teacher who remembers one of her students who "was thoroughly embarrassed to be wearing a patch."
Some experts say screenings, often performed by a school nurse or pediatrician, aren't thorough enough to catch many vision disorders.
Screenings test vision from a distance and look for signs of abnormalities, while eye exams test for diseases, and more subtle signs of vision problems, such as eye-hand coordination and focusing difficulties.
Only 14 percent of children receive a comprehensive eye exam by age 5, according to the United States Center for Health Statistics.
In 2000, Kentucky became the first state to require comprehensive vision exams for all children before they entered kindergarten. A recent study in that state found that nearly one in seven children examined since the law went into effect needed glasses and another 5 percent had serious undiagnosed conditions, although many had been screened.
With the Washington state budget strapped, "we were not encouraged that we would have any success with passing (legislation) mandating exams like Kentucky," Preston said. "So we went for the next best thing."
A handful of other states have also approved measures addressing children's vision, and federal lawmakers are considering a bill that would give states $75 million to increase the number of children who receive eye exams.
Since her diagnosis two months ago, 7-year-old Kailee Powers' vision in her left eye has improved from 20/80 to 20/30. She wears a patch while she's awake and glasses, which she'll probably need for the rest of her life, said Preston, who also treats Kailee.
Kailee used to hold books close to her face and mentioned some trouble seeing the blackboard, but a vision screening at school didn't find any problems, said Dawn Powers, Kailee's mom. She relied on her left eye to get her through the day at school, squinting and turning her head to see far away.
"I was shocked to hear that she had a lazy eye," Powers said. "Her eye didn't wander, and she played sports fine."
Often there are no symptoms a parent would notice -- especially because children may not know what's normal if they've coped with compromised vision their whole lives.
Kailee takes the corrective measures in stride, says her mom, asking her father to hold up fingers for her to guess to test how well her eye is recovering.
"The need for patching could've easily been prevented if she'd been diagnosed with astigmatism and started wearing glasses at a younger age," said Preston.
Before Henry's diagnosis, Rouse said she and her husband opted not to get vision insurance for him. They didn't realize eye doctors would be an issue so early in his life.
"If it was part of that whole checkup routine that would make it a lot easier to deal with," said Rouse, who shared Henry's problems with her play group. "Now the other mothers are saying, 'Maybe I should get my baby's eyes checked.' "
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