A recent study part-funded by the College of Optometrists shows that 16.4% of children in Britain are myopic (short-sighted) these days, as opposed to 7.2% in the 1960s. “We’re not sure why that is,” says Dr Susan Blakeney, a Clinical Adviser at the College. “It’s a very complicated issue, and we don’t know how much it’s affected by environment, activity or genes. There’s some evidence that children who spend more time outdoors are less likely to become short-sighted, but again, we’re not sure why.”

What we do know is that it’s “never too soon” to be aware of your child’s eye health. Other potential problems are long-sightedness, astigmatism, lazy eye and squints.

“Pre-school kids don’t always notice that they can’t see well,” says Blakeney. “It sounds bonkers, but remember, they don’t know what everyone else can see. We recommend that your child undergoes school screening, if it’s available, or that you take them to an optometrist on the NHS. It’s not just about wearing glasses – it’s important for children’s eyes to receive clear images to ensure healthy development of the connections between the back of the eye and the brain.”

 

What should parents look out for?

 

“Watch their behavior,” she recommends. “If the child doesn’t look at you straight, take them in for a check. A baby should be able to recognise you and follow you with their eyes from about six months. Other indicators are if a child isn’t doing as well as expected at school, or is bumping into things, or showing poor hand/eye coordination.”

Parents should act on any concerns raised by teachers because they have the advantage of being able to compare your child’s behaviour with that of a peer group, she says.

 

Risk factors

 

It’s also vital to be aware of family history such as myopia, needing strong glasses, squints or lazy eye. If there is a family history, Blakeney recommends testing a child’s eyesight from the age of three. If there is no history, the recommended age is four or five.

“The eye/brain connections are really important, and if they’re disrupted, the sooner we know the better,” she explains. “You’d be surprised how many parents don’t bring children in earlier even when they know there’s a family history. Myopia is very unusual in babies, but there are soft, bendy frames for glasses for babies. Children don’t need to be able to write or even speak – we can test them simply by shining a light in their eyes. They’re never too young.”

Parents need to be aware of both eyes, says Blakeney. You can check your child’s sight by asking them to look at something across the road and then covering one eye at a time. If they cannot see it properly with both eyes separately, get them tested.

Because myopia is a worldwide issue, there is research going on everywhere, says Blakeney, who is myopic herself. “Though it takes time to run effective trials, there is exciting work being done in myopia control.”