Over 240,000 people in Ireland are living with sight loss, yet 75pc–80pc of blindness is preventable.
Our sight is one of our most important senses, but many of us take it for granted. Furthermore, young children often can’t tell us if something is wrong with their eyesight. They may not even realise it themselves.
As such, parents should be alert for the early warnings of potential vision problems — the earlier a condition is detected, the better the outcome.
1) More green time, less screen time
Today, children are spending less time outside and more time inside. They’re starting school earlier, doing more homework and spending increased amounts of time on smartphones and computers.
Encouraging your child to spend more time outdoors may be a simple and cost-effective way to improve their vision as well as their general health. Research indicates that time spent playing outside contributes to a decrease in the risk of myopia, or short-sightedness, in children.
If your child uses a smartphone or computer, teach them to hold the device at a safe distance from their eyes. Encourage them to look away from the screen every few minutes. Staring at these devices, particularly at night, can damage their eyes.
2) Feed them an eye-friendly diet
It’s not just carrots that are good for our sight. A balanced diet with a wide variety of fruit and vegetables will not only benefit your child’s overall health, but will also help to keep their eyes healthy.
Healthy eating will protect the eyes from premature damage. Certain nutrients, such as proteins, are incredibly helpful for developing tissues, while vitamins like C and E help repair broken tissues and ward off infections.
Why not introduce different nutrient-rich foods into your child’s diet from an early age? Oranges, oily fish, peppers, eggs, dairy and nuts have some of the biggest health benefits for eyes. Of course, if your child has been diagnosed with a retinal disease, make sure to check with your doctor first as to the diet most appropriate for them.
3) Protect their eyes from the sun
Playing outside is important for the development of healthy eyes, but it’s vital to protect your child’s eyes from the sun.
Children’s eyes are more vulnerable to sun damage because they have larger pupils and clearer lenses. This means up to 80pc of ultraviolet (UV) exposure happens before the age of 18.
Children’s sunglasses will shield them from the sun’s UV rays, which can otherwise lead to eye damage and deterioration.
It’s also important to teach young children not to look directly at the sun — even when they’re wearing sunglasses. The brightness of the sun can burn the retina.
4) Get eyes tested regularly
Most very young children have their sight assessed as part of their routine developmental checks. While these are very important, they aren’t as thorough as a complete eye test by a qualified optician. Ensure your child has their first eye test by the age of three, and has one every year after that until they are 16.
Regular eye tests are particularly important in childhood because they check how well your child can see, look at how healthy their eyes are, and help to identify problems early on. If you or your partner wear glasses, there’s a greater chance that your child will need them too.
5) Telltale signs of sight problems to look out for
It’s often difficult to tell whether your child has sight problems, but there are a number of things to look out for in babies and older children.
If you notice any inward or outward turning in your baby’s eyes or significant delays in tracking moving objects, speak to your paediatrician. Conditions such as squint and amblyopia, or lazy eye, can be treated more effectively if they are picked up earlier.
As your child gets older, the demands on their eyes increase. They begin to read, write and use computers. There are a number of obvious signs that your child is having trouble with their eyes — for instance, they may squint, hold reading material very close to their face, or complain about things appearing blurry.
However, there are some less obvious signs of vision problems too. A short attention span, losing their place when reading, avoiding activities which require near vision and turning their head to the side to look at something in front of them could all indicate an issue with their sight.
6) Teach them eye safety
Eye injuries are more common than you think and many are completely avoidable. Teach your child the importance of looking after their eyes. Help them to practice the safe use of common sharp items such as pencils, scissors, forks and knives — they can all cause serious eye injury. Ensure toys are age-appropriate and avoid pellet guns, BB guns and missile-firing toys. Any sport featuring a ball, puck, stick, bat, racket or flying object is a potential cause of eye injury.
Protect them from harmful impacts by using safety eyewear that is appropriate for their sport. Many eye injuries can be prevented with better safety habits.
At Halloween, keep small children away from fireworks and avoid cosmetic contact lenses — they can scratch the surface of the eye.
7) Help their sight develop
Toys, games and playtime activities help by stimulating the process of vision development. Playing with other children can help develop your child’s visual skills.
Encourage playground interaction with others and make time for outdoor play, including ball games, bike/tricycle-riding, swinging and rolling activities.
There are a number of activities you can do at home too. Practice throwing and catching a ball, give them a chalkboard or finger paints, play simple memory games and do arts and crafts together.
8) Keep them moving
Helping your child to stay fit is excellent for their overall health and can also help to protect their eyes from potential conditions. Being overweight or obese can put them at a higher risk of diabetes and other conditions that can lead to vision problems.
Lead by example and make an active and healthy lifestyle normal in your household. Teach them about the dangers of unhealthy habits such as smoking. Terrible for our lungs, smoking also damages the eyes, as it reduces the amount of oxygen in the bloodstream, which means that less oxygen reaches the eye.
Ensuring your child gets enough rest and sleep are just as important as making sure they are active. A consistent sleep pattern keeps your child’s vision clear and crisp and benefits their overall eye health.
9) Simple home tests
Very few parents need to be reminded to take pictures of their child, but did you know that a photograph could provide valuable information about the health of your child’s eyes?
Flash photography causes the “red reflex” — commonly referred to as “red eye”. It’s produced when the flash of a camera lights up the blood-rich retina. While many of us will grumble about a ruined photo, if the colour of the reflex in both eyes is red, that’s a good indication that the retinas of both eyes are healthy.
The approach isn’t conclusive but can be helpful to identify conditions at an early age. To check your child’s eyes with a photograph, ensure that your child is looking directly at the camera lens, the camera flash is on, the background is dimly lit and red-eye reduction is turned off. An “abnormal red reflex” is a white, yellow or black reflection in one or both eyes. This can be a warning sign for the presence of an eye condition, which can be diagnosed by a paediatric ophthalmologist.
You can also do a simple “pirate” reading test at home to see if your child has a vision problem in one of their eyes. Just ask your child to cover or close one eye and read a book. Then check with the other eye closed.
Finally, remind your child that if they ever have to ask the child sitting next to them in school what’s on the blackboard, they should tell you when they get home.
The Fighting Blindness Retina 2019 public engagement day takes place during Science Week Ireland on Saturday, November 16.
The event is taking place at the Radisson Blu Hotel, Golden Lane, Dublin 8, and offers an opportunity for people living with sight loss to ask questions of leading eye experts. For information on registration, visit retina.ie
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