Your child’s eyes are special. In the early years, vision helps them find out about the world around them, about their home, about you. Later, as they go through school, their eyesight lets them learn and discover — in fact, about 80% of what is taught in schools is presented visually. Being able to see clearly is therefore incredibly important in your child’s overall development. So it’s not surprising that we take your child’s eyesight seriously. Every bit as seriously as you do.

Your child’s first eye test

Most very young children have their eyesight assessed as part of routine developmental checks. While these are very important, they aren’t as thorough as a complete eye test by a qualified optician. So we recommend that your child has their eyes tested from an early age.

Testing before your child goes into full-time education means that any problems that they may have are identified early, setting them up for a happy and fulfilling school life.

Poor eyesight can cause learning and behavioural problems, which might be blamed on other things. This is especially true for young children, who may find it difficult to explain the difficulties they are having with their eyesight, or may not even be aware they have a problem. The sooner that vision problems are detected, the better the outcome. Conditions such as squint and amblyopia (lazy eye) can be treated more effectively if they are picked up earlier, which could make a huge difference to your child.

At what age should children first visit the optician?

There are tests that can be used on infants and preschool children who cannot read or recognise letters. If you have any concerns about your child’s eyesight, you should find a local optician who will test their vision. However, if you have no concerns, it’s perhaps better to wait until your child is a little older — around three-and-a-half years — before taking them for a full eye examination.

Even if your child’s vision seems good, it’s worth taking them for a full eye test at a qualified optician when they reach school age, just to make sure that there aren’t any issues with their vision that are likely to affect their early school years.

Are children’s eye tests free?

The NHS will cover the full cost of an eye test for anyone who qualifies. All children under 16, as well as those under 19 in full- time education, are entitled to an NHS funded eye test. Find out more about NHS funded eye tests.

What happens during a children’s eye test?

We know that eye tests can be a little overwhelming for some children — especially if it’s their first time. That’s why we’ve made the process as enjoyable and child friendly as possible. 

Children’s eye tests are a little different from those for adults. We use specially designed charts that allow children to recognise shapes or pictures, or even to match letters, rather than the traditional charts that you may be familiar with. This means that we can test children’s eyes even if they are unable to read or recognise letters.

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Signs your child might need an eye test

It’s often difficult to tell whether your child has sight problems, which is why regular eye tests are so important. There are a number of things to look out for:

  • Straining their eyes or tilting their head to see better 
  • Frequent eye rubbing 
  • Losing their place while reading, or using a finger to guide their eyes 
  • Sensitivity to light and/or excessive tearing 
  • Falling behind in school 
  • Complaining of headaches or tired eyes 
  • The presence of a ‘turn’ in the eye or a misdirection of the eyes 
  • Consistently sitting too close to the TV or holding a book too close
  • Avoiding activities which require near vision, such as reading or homework, or distance vision, such as participating in sports or other recreational activities
  • Closing one eye to read, watch TV or see better
  •  Avoiding using a computer or tablet because it hurts their eyes
  • A ‘white reflex’ in photographs. This is similar in appearance to red-eye, except it’s white. It is extremely serious – if you notice it, you should seek medical attention immediately.

Signs of eye conditions in children

Children begin to develop vision in their eyes over the course of their first year. Young babies can’t see beyond a few feet and there’s nothing to worry about if they can’t recognise your face from a distance for their first three or four months. By the age of about eight their eyesight should be fully developed. 

Watery eyes are common in young babies as the ducts that carry the tears away from the surface of their eyes are not fully open for the first few months. If this problem doesn’t clear up by your child’s first birthday, it’s best to get it checked out with your GP.

More serious eye problems that need advice from your optician or GP include persistent or recurring eye infections, or if you notice your baby’s eyes do not move together perfectly, e.g. when looking at an object straight ahead one eye is pointed slightly outward (squint). 

When your child is three or four, if they have difficulty recognising shapes, colours or showing no interest in pictures in storybooks, your opticians should have the necessary tests to conduct a full eye examination. Your child doesn’t have to be able to read or recognise letters to have their sight tested.

Common children’s eye conditions

Squint

What is a squint? 

A squint is a condition where one of your child’s eyes points in a different direction when they are looking straight ahead. Most commonly an eye will be turned towards the nose, but sometimes an eye can turn outwards. It can cause blurred vision, double vision and lead to lazy eye. 

How common is it? 

Around 1 in 20 children have a squint. It usually appears before the age of five and is picked up in routine eye checks. 

How is it treated? 

Squints can be treated with glasses and eye exercises. If these don’t work, surgery may be needed to move the muscles that control the eye.

Astigmatism

What is Astigmatism? 

Astigmatism is a minor eye condition that causes blurred or distorted vision. It occurs when the cornea or lens isn’t a perfectly curved shape (more like a rugby ball than a football). 

How common is it? 

It is very common. In fact, many people who wear glasses will have some degree of astigmatism. 

How is it treated? 

Left untreated, astigmatism can cause headaches, eye strain and tiredness, particularly after doing tasks that involve focusing on something for long periods, such as reading or using a computer. In most cases astigmatism is easily corrected with glasses or contact lenses.

Short-sightedness

What is short-sightedness? 

Being short-sighted means that you can focus on objects when they are close up, but those further away will be blurred. 

How common is it? 

Very. About one in three people are short-sighted. The condition is usually first diagnosed at around the age of 12, but younger children can also have it. 

How is it treated? 

In children, short-sightedness is easily corrected with glasses and/or contact lenses.

Amblyopia or lazy eye

What is amblyopia or lazy eye? 

If your child is diagnosed with an amblyopic or lazy eye, it usually means that one of their eyes is weaker than the other, causing them to rely more on their ‘good’ eye. 

How common is it? 

Around 1 in 50 children develop an amblyopic or lazy eye. It can usually be diagnosed at about the age of four during routine eye checks with a qualified optician, or at their developmental screening. 

How is it treated? 

Glasses will be prescribed to correct the vision in the weaker eye and often no further treatment is required. If the weak eye does not respond fully then a patch can be worn over the good eye for part of the day to force the weaker eye to work. Treatment is usually effective but may take a while.

Long-sightedness

What is long-sightedness? 

Children who are long-sighted find it easier to focus on things which are further away than those which are close to them. Long-sighted children may experience blurred vision or tired eyes when reading. 

How common is it? 

Most children are slightly long-sighted but often will not require glasses to correct it unless it is causing a problem. 

How is it treated? 

If your child has a significant amount of long sight, it can be corrected with glasses and/or contact lenses.