On the look out

06 September 2019

Unexplained changes in children’s eyes should never be ignored, so it helps to know the signs of serious and routine issues. Journalist John Windell also offers tips for protecting young eyes from accidental damage. 

The eyes are delicate and complex organs, so it comes as little surprise that parents often express worry about the healthy development of their children’s eyesight. An online survey carried out earlier this year for UK charity the Childhood Eye Cancer Trust (CHECT) found that among just over 1000 parents – all of them with at least one child aged six or under – 26% feel their child’s eye health is one of their greatest concerns, and 35% have asked their health visitor to check their child’s eyes in the past year (CHECT, 2019).

Around 25,000 children under the age of 16 in the UK are blind or partially sighted, and half of them have other disabilities too (RNIB, 2018). In the context of a population of around 12 million under-16s (ONS, 2018), these severe cases are a small fraction. But alongside the dedicated care needed for these profoundly affected children, community practitioners should be vigilant for other – more minor but still worrying – issues that can affect a child’s eyesight as they are growing up.

‘If by six to eight weeks the baby doesn’t seem to be looking at you, or making eye contact, you ought to get help’

The growing eye

What does normal eye development look like? Newborns have trouble focusing or seeing colour until they are around six months old. Daniel Hardiman-McCartney, clinical adviser for the College of Optometrists, says: ‘[At six months] they should be able to see in three dimensions and to follow objects with ease.’  

However, it’s not always easy to spot problems with young babies. ‘It can take children about three months to develop eye coordination,’ says Melanie Hingorani, consultant ophthalmologist at Moorfields Eye Hospital in London. ‘So they can see fine but a little bit of eye wandering is common. But if by six to eight weeks they don’t seem to be looking at you, or making eye contact with mum and dad, if the eyes are wandering uncontrollably, you ought to get help. That’s one of the things GPs look for at the six-week check.’

By the age of four, any issues with normal eyesight function should be clear. ‘Most at this age are a little bit long-sighted, though it’s not usually a problem,’ says Daniel. ‘But if there is any laziness in the eye or a squint, that will also be apparent.’

It’s around the age of four and five that all children in England should be screened. The screening is normally run in schools by a specialist orthoptist, although in some cases it might be an optometrist or even a trained health visitor or school nurse. Testing does not look at long- or short-sightedness or colour vision problems. ‘It is purely about pulling out children who clearly have a squint or lazy eye and need further investigation,’ says Daniel. ‘We think the majority of children are screened, but only just.’

All children in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are also meant to be screened, though in practice it varies from area to area – only 60% of schools now supply eye tests (Vision Express, 2019).

'There is something about children going outside and playing a lot that seems to protect them against short-sightedness’

Common childhood eye conditions:

Short-sightedness (myopia)- Difficulty seeing things far away, such as the TV or the board at school. Children whose parents are short-sighted are more at risk of developing the condition.

Long-sightedness (hyperopia)- Needing to work harder to focus close-up. A degree of long sight is normal in children, but they have strong focus so can still see well and often do not need glasses.

Astigmatism- The eye is shaped like a rugby ball rather than a football, making vision blurred or distorted. It is common, not serious, and is easily corrected with glasses or contact lenses.

Colour blindness (colour vision deficiency)- Around one in eight boys and one in 250 girls perceive colours differently and may confuse certain colours, such as red and green. 

Lazy eye (amblyopia)- One eye that is weaker than the other. Glasses can correct the vision in the weaker eye, or a patch can be worn over the good eye to force the weaker eye to work.

Squint (strabismus)- The eyes look in different directions. Around 2% to 3% of children have a squint, which can run in families. Long-sighted children may squint without their glasses.

Staying vigilant with young eyes

Short-sightedness, or myopia, is most likely to appear in children between the ages of six and 13 and is increasingly common – it is twice as prevalent among UK children now than in the 1960s (McCullough et al, 2016). School children seem to struggle to focus in the classroom, and teachers and school nurses can be the first adults to notice.

HVs should also be on the lookout for more serious conditions, such as retinoblastoma, a rare form of cancer mainly affecting babies and children under five. ‘The first thing parents notice is that one of the child’s pupils looks white,’ says Daniel. ‘That’s a red flag and requires an urgent referral to an optometrist or a GP’ (see panel: Checking for cancer).

Other symptoms that may be warning signs of something serious include persistent headaches, double-vision and nausea. Melanie says that any abnormalities are a cause for concern. ‘If anything makes you think it’s not right, then it’s always better to get it looked at.’

Can parents do anything to help the normal development of their children’s eyesight? ‘There is nothing specific except to let children run around and give them a healthy diet,’ says Melanie. ‘There is no evidence that screens damage the eyes or make children more short-sighted.’

Daniel agrees: ‘Computers, phones and tablets are not directly harmful to the eye, All the same, our advice for children is the same as for adults – take regular breaks, every 20 minutes or so, to look away into the far distance and blink a few times. Children aren’t very good at self-regulating, so parents have a role to play there.’

Both feel that the real problem with screens for children is that they aren’t spending enough time outdoors. ‘I think screens are harmful to the general health because they mean children are indoors and not running around [outside],’ says Melanie. ‘The only thing we can say with any certainty is that there is something about children going outside and playing a lot that seems to protect them against short-sightedness. Could it be because they are not looking at a lot of stuff close-up? That’s the unanswered question.’

What can HVs do?

Health visitors have a key role to play in understanding not just the symptoms of eye problems but also the local protocols and what referrals to make. Daniel says: ‘Normally, for all children over three that will be the local optometrist, while for those under three it may be hospital or a community service.’ Speed is a factor, too. ‘Act on those warning signs, because there is a critical period. Under the age of seven, the eye and the brain are still developing, so if we catch a problem like a squint or lazy eye we can correct it. But after that, the child may have the problem for the rest of their lives.’

Accidents and injuries also remain a threat that health visitors can show parents how to avoid. ‘Here at Moorfields we still see a lot of incidents with children’s eyes, particularly when they are toddlers,’ says Melanie.

A persistent problem is laundry-liquid capsules, she says. ‘Children see these squishy, coloured things, get their hands on them, squeeze them and they splat into their face. The chemicals can be damaging. Lock them away, out of reach.

‘Also be wary of laser toys and laser pens. Small children can easily shine them in their own eyes and burn the retina. If you get a burn, it’s completely irreversible. They look like toys, but don’t trust them.’

A bright idea for sunny days

There is evidence that children who spend time outdoors are less likely to be short-sighted (Tideman et al, 2018). But it’s not just their skin that needs protecting from harmful UV radiation while enjoying the sun – children’s eyes also need looking after. ‘We don’t recommend children should wear sunglasses all the time,’ says Daniel Hardiman-McCartney, ‘but if they are all day on the beach with a very high UV index, sunglasses will protect their eyes from UV light and from the glare and dazzle. If the glasses don’t have a CE mark, don’t buy them.’

Checking for Cancer

Retinoblastoma is a rare and aggressive form of eye cancer that affects babies and young children, mainly under the age of five (NHS, 2018). Around 50 to 60 cases are diagnosed a year in the UK (CHECT, 2018).  

The main signs of retinoblastoma are:

  • White glow in the pupil, or a white reflection in the pupil in flash photographs
  • New squint
  • Change in the colour of the iris
  • Red or inflamed eye
  • Deterioration in vision.

Patrick Tonks, chief executive of CHECT, says: ‘Health visitors are a key source of information and support for parents of this age group, so we are asking them to take five minutes to familiarise themselves with the common signs and symptoms. Over 90% of children diagnosed with retinoblastoma will survive, but more than half will lose an eye in order to save their life, so urgent referral and early diagnosis is vital.’




  • The College of Optometrists has a range of useful information about children’s eyes at college-optometrists.org
  • Consumer-focused help and advice from the College of Optometrists at lookafteryoureyes.org
  • The Moorfields website has an area dedicated to children’s eyesight at moorfields.nhs.uk/childrens-eye-health
  • National Eye Health Week takes place from 23 to 29 September, promoting the importance of good eye health and regular eye tests for all
  • Vision Matters is an industry-wide website that supports National Eye Health Week. Visit visionmatters.org.uk 


Childhood Eye Cancer Trust. (2019) [Press release] More parents than ever asking health visitors for eye checks. 

College of Optometrists. (2019a) Look after your eyes: a short guide to your child’s eyes. See: https://lookafteryoureyes.org/eye-care/childrens-eye-health/guide-to-childs-eyes (accessed 17 July 2019).

College of Optometrists. (2019b) Look after your eyes: common childhood eye conditions. See: https://lookafteryoureyes.org/eye-care/childrens-eye-health/common-childhood-eye-conditions (accessed 17 July 2019).

McCullough SJ, O’Donoghue L, Saunders KJ. Six year refractive change among white children and young adults: evidence for significant increase in myopia among white UK children. PLoS One (online). See: https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0146332 (accessed 17 July 2019).

NHS. (2018) Retinoblastoma (eye cancer in children). See: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/retinoblastoma (accessed 17 July 2019). 

Office for National Statistics. (2018) Overview of the UK population: November 2018. See: https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/populationandmigration/populationestimates/articles/overviewoftheukpopulation/november2018 (accessed 17 July 2019).

RNIB. (2018) Eye health and sight loss facts. See: https://www.rnib.org.uk/sites/default/files/Eye%20health%20and%20sight%20loss%20stats%20and%20facts.pdf (accessed 17 July 2019).

Tideman JWL, Polling JR, Hofman A, Jaddoe VWV, Mackenbach JP, Klaver CCCW. (2018) Environmental factors explain socioeconomic prevalence differences in myopia in 6-year-old children. British Journal of Ophthalmology 102(2): 243-7.


Image credit | Shutterstock


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