Despite nine months of growth in utero, babies are not born with fully developed eyes and vision - just like they can't walk or talk yet. Over the first few months of life, their visual systems continue to progress, stimulated by their surroundings.
Babies will develop the ability to track objects, focus their eyes, and move them like a team. Initially they see black and white contrast more easily but over months, their ability to see colours and details rapidly improve. They will also form the neural connections that will allow them to process what they see, to understand and interact with the world around them.
Healthy eyes and good vision are necessary for proper and timely progress; ocular or visual problems can lead to developmental delays.
So how do you know if your infant is developing normally? What can you do to ensure your baby's eye health and vision are on track? While infant eye problems are not common, Dr. Dianna Leong, Dr. Anh Bui and Dr. Elizabeth Yan suggest some steps you can take to ensure your child's eyes are healthy.
#1 Schedule baby's first checkup at 6 months of age.
It is recommended to get the first professional comprehensive eye and vision exam for your child between six and 12 months of age. Immediately after nap time and feeding is an ideal checkup time when eye doctors can examine an alert infant.
Your optometrist should check for the following skills at the 6-month checkup:
- Visual acuity (nearsightedness, farsightedness or astigmatism)
- Eye muscle and movement capabilities
- Eye health
If you have any concerns prior to six months, don't hesitate to take your baby for an exam earlier.
#2 Engage in visually stimulating play.
Incorporating visually stimulating play for your child will help develop visual processes like eye tracking and eye teaming.
A baby's initial focusing distance is 20-30 cm, so to nurture healthy vision skills, keep high contrast "reach and touch" toys within this distance. Alternate right and left sides with each feeding, and provide toys that encourage tracking of moving objects to foster eye-hand coordination and depth perception.
Pediatricians in North America recommend that NO screen time be allowed under the age of 2, as many forms of development may be delayed from premature use of digital devices.
#3 Be alert to eye and vision problems.
Keep an eye out for indications of an eye health problem, and contact an eye doctor to discuss any concerns you may have. Some symptoms to pay attention to include:
- Red eyes or eyelids, which may or may not be accompanied by discharge and crusty lids. This may indicate an eye infection that can be very contagious and may require medication.
- Excessive eye watering or tearing. This may be caused by a problem with the tear ducts, such as a blockage.
- Extreme light sensitivity. While some light sensitivity is normal, significant sensitivity to light can be a sign of disease or elevated eye pressure.
- Eye “jiggling” or bouncing. This suggests a problem with the muscle control of the eyes.
- Eye turn. Whether it is an eye that seems to cross in or a “lazy eye” that turns out, this is often associated with a refractive error or eye muscle issues that could require treatment such as eyeglasses, vision therapy, patching or surgery.
- White pupil. This can be a sign of a number of diseases, including cancer. If you see this have it checked out immediately.
Since your infant's eyes are still maturing, any issues that are found can likely be corrected with proper care and treatment. Dr. Leong and Dr. Bui want to regularly check the health of your child's eyes to ensure proper learning and development throughout infancy and beyond.