Experts Recommend Back-To-School Vision Evaluations

Armen Hareyan's picture

You've probably prepared your children for the upcoming school year by buying school supplies and scheduling vaccinations. But don't overlook one of the most important steps in making sure your child has a good year: getting his or her vision evaluated.

"Because of the importance of vision in learning, it is recommended that preschoolers between ages 6 months and 4 years who do not show signs of visual defects receive a vision screening to rule out undetected vision problems," said Mark Wilkinson, O.D., clinical professor of ophthalmology at the University of Iowa Roy J. and Lucille A. Carver College of Medicine. "This same recommendation applies for children 5 years of age and older.

"In addition, if a vision problem is suspected, parents should take their child to an optometrist or an ophthalmologist for a professional eye exam. Don't wait for a vision screening at school," added Wilkinson, who treats young patients at UI Children's Hospital.

Twelve percent of children up to age 4 have a vision problem, with the percentage increasing to 31 percent by ages 14 to 19. The most common eye condition in children is refractive error, which indicates a need for glasses or contact lenses to achieve clear vision. Refractive errors include nearsightedness (inability to see things clearly far away), farsightedness (inability to see things clearly close up) and astigmatism (blurred vision at all distances).

Parents of children ages 6 months to 4 years can schedule a free screening with Iowa KidSight, a joint project of the Lions Clubs of Iowa and the UI Department of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences. Iowa KidSight provides free screenings to children in all of Iowa's 99 counties. During the past year, KidSight screened more than 23,000 Iowa children.

"We screen for several different conditions that can lead to amblyopia, or 'lazy eye,' in the developing child," said Lori Short, KidSight program coordinator. "When detected early and treated early, long-term success rates are much greater."

During the screening, a trained volunteer takes an instant photo of the child's eye with a camera designed to detect any eye problems. Because the camera doesn't require any verbal interaction from the child, these types of screenings are especially suitable for preverbal and difficult-to-screen children.


Any child who fails a vision screening or has a suspected vision problem should have a professional eye examination by an optometrist or ophthalmologist, to further examine and address the problems, Wilkinson said.

Even if your child passes a vision screening it is important to look out for certain behaviors and appearances that can indicate vision problems. Such signs include swollen, crusty, red or drooping eyelids, eyes in constant motion, eyes that do not track together, recurring sties and watery eyes.

Children who squint, frown or scowl when looking at objects, rub their eyes, hold printed material at an unusual position or have an abnormal sensitivity to light may also be having trouble seeing. Vision problems are also likely when children complain of headaches, double vision, eye pain, burning or itching, or inability to see distant objects.

"If a parent suspects their child has a vision problem, don't wait for a screening," Wilkinson said. "The parent should take their child for a professional eye examination."

Some children are more likely than others to experience vision problems based on family history of vision loss and other risk factors, including a low birth weight, exposure to chemicals or infection during pregnancy, a neurological disorder or head injury, or having had meningitis or encephalitis.

In addition to addressing vision problems, parents should also help avoid eye injury by using age-appropriate toys and avoiding toys with sharp edges and toys that shoot objects, Wilkinson said.

To find out more about vision screenings in your area, contact the Iowa KidSight program coordinator, Lori Short, at 319-353-7616 for children 6 months to 4 years. For older children, contact their school nurse. Elementary students in the Iowa City Community School District and surrounding areas may also be screened through the Grant Wood Area Education Agency.

UI Children's Hospital serves children and their families at its main campus in Iowa City and satellite clinics in communities throughout Iowa. A 180-bed "hospital within a hospital," UI Children's Hospital benefits from the sophisticated services and comprehensive resources of UI Hospitals and Clinics. Child magazine ranks UI Children's Hospital among the top 20 children's hospitals in the nation.