"I see dots," said my five-year-old daughter as we were making our way through the usual bedtime routine. It wasn't quite as dramatic as "I see dead people" – the line delivered by that troubled little boy on the big screen – but I got a creeping feeling of unease as I questioned her about these dots.
"They're on your face, the walls, everywhere I look," she explained, "there are hundreds of them. All different colours." Unease was soon replaced by guilt. She'd missed the routine eye check carried out at her pre-school six months earlier. With no sign of any problem at the time and the opportunity to have the test the following year, I quickly forgot about the routine test. Until the dots.
Karen Makin, Optometrist and Optometric Services Manager at Bupa Optical, says routine annual eye tests are recommended for all children from around the age of 3 to 5 years. "Eye care and eye health is really important and is something that's really easy to have checked. If there's a problem, the earlier we look and find, and treat if necessary, then the better the outcomes usually are later in life."
When it comes to treatment, Karen says some parents worry about their child having to wear glasses. Don't let that stop you making an appointment, she says. Even if there is a problem, other treatment such as exercises may be recommended. If glasses are required, look at the upside: "Glasses these days are a fashion thing and they can make such a positive difference in a child's life, it's unbelievable."
There are also many situations where a seemingly alarming issue will actually require no treatment. For example, a common issue for babies and children up to four years of age is one eye seeming to turn in, says Karen. "It could be just an anatomical thing, because the bridge of the nose hasn't developed properly and because eyelids haven't lifted up properly, and [it's usually] nothing to worry about. But it's always a good idea to get it checked out. "Because the earlier we detect potential issues the more likely we can provide corrective assistance."
Some issues, like long or short sightedness and problems with binocular vision, are not so obvious. And children often don't even realise they have a problem. This is why routine checks are recommended. However, there are sometimes subtle clues which suggest an eye examination should be carried out. Karen says to look out for the following things:
- Rubbing their eyes a lot
- Red or watery eyes
- Complaining of headaches or tired eyes
- Consistently getting close-up to the TV or when looking at picture books
- Unusual head tilting or turning while watching TV
- Not doing as well as expected at school.
My daughter had none of these signs but the dots comment continued to trouble me that night. I searched the internet and fluctuated between worrying if it was something serious and suspecting it was just one of those weird childhood things. I did know it was something I wanted checked out by a professional.
Within 24 hours she was sitting in an over-sized chair in an optometrist's consulting rooms, ready for her eye examination. One less worry for me was that she loves visiting the doctor, so a simple explanation that we were visiting an "eye doctor" was all that was required.
For children who may be a little less enthusiastic about these things, Karen says a simple briefing beforehand can help. "It's a good idea to prepare young children for the bright lights and dark room that will be involved in an eye examination."
The examination was much the same as an adult eye test: lots of looking into bright lights, looking this way and that, wearing funny glasses and reading charts. Karen explains that shape and object charts can replace letter charts for very young children and more objective observations are relied on where children are unable to provide feedback.
At the end of my daughter's eye examination, I heard the words I wanted to hear. "Her eyes are completely healthy, I can't find any problems at all." The dots? Probably a product of a growing retina, light sensitivity and a highly perceptive child, I was told.
We left the optometrist's with a snazzy new pair of sunnies to protect Miss 5's eyes and instructions to turn down the brightness on any screens she uses. I was relieved – and will be vigilant with booking an annual routine eye examination in future.