Childhood is a crucial period for visual health. Younger eyes take some time to fully mature – babies lack distance vision, tracking, and even color vision at birth, and develop these abilities over the first few months of life. Even after infancy, vision still doesn’t reach full maturity until well into childhood, with some skills, such as convergence, only solidifying by age seven.
Unfortunately, that development is far from risk free. A wide range of visual problems can crop up in childhood, some of which can have lasting effects if left untreated. However, treating them isn’t always cheap, and some parents may find themselves wondering how to their child’s visual health up to par on a limited income.
Even a simple eye exam can easily run you over $100 if you head to a opthalmologist for it – and that’s to say nothing of additional costs for corrective lenses or medical procedures. Fortunately, anyone facing this problem can look for help. Aid comes in many forms, and plenty of NGO’s, government programs, and clinics have their own ways of making sure that every child has access to adequate vision care.
Vision screening is a free service offered by many schools, and a good first step to catching some childhood vision disorders. Most testing is relatively basic and is generally conducted by a trained school nurse. A basic screening consists of an optotype test (identifying smaller and smaller letters) to check visual acuity, and in some cases, a color perception test, which can help determine if a child is colorblind. Some programs also encourage teacher observation, ensuring that struggling students receive more in-depth screening.
While we’re not about the deny the value of widespread, free vision testing, school screenings do fall short in some regards. Most will only test visual acuity and, while an optotype test can help to detect myopia (nearsightedness), it doesn’t do much to help a child struggling with a different problem altogether.
Strabismus (crossed eyes) and amblyopia (loss of visual acuity in one eye, can result from untreated strabismus) are both relatively common in younger people and, if caught early enough, can be treated effectively. These, and other disorders, often slip through the narrow scope of a screening.
Free Eye Exams
No matter how good a school’s screening program is, you’ll sometimes want to look for more expert advice. Impaired vision can make school a nightmare for kids. Reading becomes much more difficult with an untreated disorder, sometimes becoming a very literal headache that saps the fun out of school – not a good thing for any student. If your child seems to be struggling, or has difficulty with tasks that require acute vision, heading for a full clinical eye exam is likely your best option.
As mentioned before, these don’t come cheap. However, if an office visit is a bit outside your budget, you may be able to find help. Sight for Students is a charity that specializes in providing free exams and lenses to low-income, uninsured children. They’re an excellent place to start looking for a physician, largely because of an extensive network of community partners. If your child is under 18, then you may be able to qualify for aid.
Near- or farsightedness are two of the most common eye disorders a child is likely to encounter. Diagnosis with either one generally means one thing: it’s time to find some glasses. And glasses, again, aren’t always cheap. Finding a good pair means visiting an optometrist, sitting for a measurement to determine what prescription you need, then actually buying the lenses themselves.
All told, glasses can be a considerable expense – to say nothing of the replacement costs that pop up when the first pair is inevitably sat on or misplaced.
Again, Sight for Students can help. The organization not only provides eye exams, but will also sponsor glasses for children in need of them. New Eyes for the Needy is yet another option. If you qualify, New Eyes will purchase a new pair of prescription glasses for your child. They’re also good people to contact if you’ve got an outgrown pair lying around, as they’ll redistribute used pairs to developing countries.
For anyone looking for a more complete care option, finding insurance may be your best call. Low-cost or free health insurance is available through medicaid or the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP). Besides vision care, these programs can also go toward paying more comprehensive care, including hospitalizations and prescriptions.
CHIP can cover a child until they turn 19, and offers a good all-around solution for childhood health care. Programs vary state-by-state, so be sure to contact a local source if you’re thinking about taking this route. Not every physician will accept medicaid or CHIP, but it’s relatively easy to find one using the program’s list of community partners.
Finally, a lot of the best care that a child can receive comes at little to no cost from a provider who’s already with them nearly 24/7. We’re talking about you – parents are the first line of defense for a child’s vision, and often one of the most effective. You’ll often be in the best place to notice any vision disorders. Keep watch for classic signs such as squinting or scootching up too close to the television, they could be signs of decreased vision.
Setting a healthy diet can also provide a jump-start to healthy eyesight. While fine dining isn’t always cheap, there are plenty of ways to cut out risks. Start by replacing sugary sodas, energy drinks, and juices with water. Sugar-packed drinks greatly increase a child’s odds of dealing with eye-harming diseases like diabetes or hypertension.
On the other hand, some foods can give vision a boost. Eat leafy greens whenever possible. Spinach might not actually grant Popeye-style muscle, but it is packed with a long list of beneficial nutrients. The one challenge you’ll have is making it appetizing.