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Teach your children from a young age that good eyesight should be treasured. We’ve asked an America’s Best expert to show you how.
By Alisa Bowman
If your nightly routine includes nagging your children to brush their teeth, you know the challenges involved in helping kids adopt healthy habits. Teaching them about eye health isn’t always easy either, but unhealthy habits can lead to consequences that range from eyestrain to vision loss.
We asked Madison Lessard, O.D., an optometrist with America’s Best Contacts & Eyeglasses in Coral Springs, Florida, to share the most common bad habits that can affect a child’s eyes, along with solid advice on how to break them.
Did you know that kids with vision problems should get an eye exam every year? Find an appointment time that fits your schedule!
Staring at Things Too Closely
For children’s eyes to fully develop, they need to focus on objects that are within an arm’s length and objects that are farther away. Unfortunately, video games, tablets, and smartphones that are right in their faces are what seem to hold their attention.
When kids are glued to their glowing devices — along with other near-work tasks like reading and coloring — their eyes can elongate. This can worsen their distance vision and cause nearsightedness. This is known as myopia.
“Their eyes and brain think they only need to see things up close and not far away,” says Dr. Lessard.
When kids focus too much on near objects, they also tend to blink less. This can cause dry, irritated eyes. The tiny muscles around the eyes can also become overworked, causing strain and headaches.
How to help: Encourage your children to spend an hour or two a day outdoors, which will give their eyes a distance-vision workout. As a side benefit, more outdoor time usually translates to more physical activity too.
Also encourage your children to practice the 20-20-20 rule. For every 20 minutes of close work, take a break and look 20 feet away (such as out a window) for 20 seconds.
Playing Sports Without Eye Protection
The physical activity that comes with athletics is wonderful. The risk of eye injuries isn’t. “The number one reason kids can go blind or get injured is with sports and not wearing protective goggles or any type of protection,” says Dr. Lessard.
A child’s eye can become damaged by a projectile such as a ball, a collision with another player, or even dirt and debris.
How to help: Purchase shatter-resistant goggles that wrap around your child’s eyes. If your child wears corrective lenses, talk to your optometrist about prescription sports goggles.
Recommended reading: Kids and Sports: 4 Reasons to Schedule a Preseason Eye Exam
Skipping the Sunglasses
Just like skin, the eyes’ delicate tissues can become burned by the sun’s powerful ultraviolet (UV) rays. When this happens, symptoms can include dryness, redness, and irritation.
In addition to causing a temporary eyeball burn, overexposure to the sun can raise your child’s risk of developing cataracts later in life. It can also increase their odds of developing macular degeneration, a leading cause of vision loss. The sun’s rays can also cause small, noncancerous bumps to form on the eyeball. A bump like this is called a pinguecula.
“Often, children don’t realize they are being exposed,” says Dr. Lessard. “If it’s a cloudy day, the UV rays can still sunburn your child’s eyes.”
How to help: Encourage your children to wear sunglasses whenever they go outdoors, even if it’s cloudy. And leave a spare pair in their school backpack, so they’ll always have them on hand. When you purchase sunglasses, choose ones designed to protect against both UVA and UVB rays. (Look for the words “100% UV protection” or “UV 400” on the frames.)
Sleeping in Contact Lenses
Your child’s eyes need contact lens–free downtime, so oxygen can reach the cornea and tears can clean and protect the eyes. When teens and tweens wear lenses to bed, they increase their risk of eye infections.
Wearing lenses while you’re sleeping can also lead to irritation and inflammation. If debris becomes trapped between the contact lens and the eye, it can scratch the cornea. This can lead to scarring and vision loss. (Learn more about the dangers of sleeping in contacts in here.)
How to help: Hold off on allowing your children to wear contacts until they are mature enough to care for and remove their lenses daily. A general rule of thumb: If you’re still struggling to get your kids to brush their teeth or wash their hands, they’re probably not mature enough to transition from glasses to contact lenses, says Dr. Lessard.
Recommended reading: 6 Signs Your Child Is Ready for a Contact Lens Eye Exam
Forgetting to Wear Their Glasses
Your child won’t go blind from not wearing their prescription eyewear. It may not harm their vision either. But it can lead to eyestrain, headaches, and fatigue.
Forgetting to wear glasses is especially common in farsighted children. They may not think to bring glasses with them when they are playing outdoors. But if they don’t have them on hand and need to read something, they’ll have to squint and strain to make out the words.
How to help: Farsighted children often need time to adjust to prescription eyewear. Start by asking them to wear their glasses for an hour a day. Once they are used to that, aim for two hours, then three, until eventually they’re accustomed to wearing them all the time, says Dr. Lessard.
You can also make an appointment with an America’s Best optometrist, who can reduce the prescription to one that’s easier for your child to tolerate when playing outdoors.
Recommended reading: 5 Genius Ways to Help Your Child Love (and Wear!) Their New Glasses
Touching Their Eyes
Kids are germy. When your children touch their eyes, they transfer whatever is on their hands into their eyeballs. This can lead to eye infections such as bacterial conjunctivitis, which is a form of pink eye. If your child has handled harsh chemicals, it can also lead to eye damage.
How to help: Teach your children to wash their hands often. It’s particularly crucial before and after eating and after using the toilet, blowing their nose, handling pet food, and playing with other children.
Show them how to rub their hands with soap and water, thoroughly lathering the fronts and backs of their hands, under their nails, and between their fingers. Thorough handwashing takes about 20 seconds, roughly how long it takes to sing “Happy Birthday.”
One more safety tip: If you have young children, be sure to keep household chemicals, such as cleaning products, locked away in childproof cabinets. These types of common products cause about 125,000 eye injuries every year.
Dr. Lessard’s final tip for parents is to remember that eye doctors are an important part of a child’s health care team. From diagnosing pink eye and eye allergies to helping untangle any possible reading or learning problems that might be rooted with their eye health, your eye doctor is a valuable family resource.
“Regular eye exams are just as important as checkups with your child’s pediatrician,” she says.
Medically reviewed by Madison Lessard, O.D.
See our sources:
Contact lens hygiene: BMJ Open Ophthalmology