Cataracts are quite commonly found in elderly people, so when you hear the word ‘cataracts’ the elderly are usually who come to mind. The fact is, though, that babies can also have cataracts. Out of every 10,000 babies, three are diagnosed with cataracts.
Cataracts occur in babies because the lens of the eye, or both eyes in some cases, didn’t develop properly during pregnancy. This can be due to genetics or it can happen for some other reason, such as if the mother contracted Rubella while she was pregnant, or the baby developed an infection in one or both eyes during delivery or shortly after birth, or it can happen for no known apparent reason.
What Are Cataracts?
In normally developed eyes, the lens, which helps you to focus on objects, is transparent, allowing you to see the objects you’re focusing on. When a cataract is present, the lens develops a milky white appearance which makes it too cloudy to see through and can lead to seriously impaired vision and blindness.
If a baby is not diagnosed with cataracts soon enough, it could prevent them from reaching normal stages of development overall. As with adults, however, cataracts in babies are treatable and damage done to the eyes as a result of the cataracts can be reversed.
The treatment involves a surgical procedure to remove the cataracts and then one of three things can occur – either the doctor will implant an artificial lens referred to as an intraocular lens (IOL), the baby can wear contacts for several years before having the IOL implanted, or the baby can wear glasses.
It isn’t recommended that the baby wear glasses if only one eye has a cataract. If both eyes have cataracts, glasses can help them to focus on light, but, at the same time, glasses can also greatly limit their field of vision. Since contacts need to be removed and cleaned regularly, which can be a hassle and lead to frustrations when dealing with a baby, many parents opt for implantation of the IOL.
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Contacts vs Intraocular Lens Implants
There has been much debate amongst medical professionals as to whether or not contacts are as effective and safe as IOLs. Many people believe that contacts are not as effective as IOLs and are not as safe either because of how easy it becomes for germs to be introduced to the eyes when the contacts have to be removed regularly and infections can occur as a result.
There have also been concerns that contacts would not restore vision as well or as quickly as IOLs because contacts are not worn constantly and they can become accidentally dislodged. However, there have been studies done to test the level of effectiveness of each treatment option and several of these studies show that contact lenses are just as effective as IOLs. Some doctors are actually recommending that babies wear contact lenses until they get older, if the parents can handle the care that the use of contact lenses requires.
Another reason why some doctors are recommending contact lenses over IOLs for babies is because since babies are so small and cannot talk and express what they can actually see, it is hard for doctors to properly judge the focusing power of the IOLs on a life-long basis. If babies do not receive IOLs until they are older, the IOLs can be much more effective.
There are also more post-operative complications with the IOLs in babies that can lead to the need for more surgeries. The complication that occurs most commonly after cataract surgery is called lens reproliferation. This happens when remaining cells from the lens migrate to the pupil and obstruct vision. When this happens, additional surgery is required to remove the cells.
It has been shown that lens reproliferation occurs more often in babies and kids with IOLs than in babies and kids with contact lenses. For this reason, many parents choose for their babies to have contacts until they are older.
Babies are usually tested for cataracts within a few days after birth and then again when they are about two months old. If your baby is diagnosed with cataracts at either of these two points, treatment can begin right away. However, cataracts can sometimes develop a little later on, so it’s helpful to know what the signs are to look for so if you notice something, you can get your baby treated right away to avoid any long-term developmental delays as a result.
If your baby is developing cataracts they will have poor vision and/or their eyes may not be even, meaning while one eye might be centered properly, the other eye may be situated slightly off to one side or, in some cases, both eyes are slightly off center. Some parents have reported not noticing their babies’ eyes being offset while looking at them in person, but they would notice it when they were looking at pictures taken of their baby.
If you notice these signs, or other signs that something seems off about your baby’s vision, it would be wise to alert your baby’s pediatrician who can then refer you to an ophthalmologist for further testing if necessary. The sooner cataracts are diagnosed, the less likely your baby will have lasting vision problems.
Many parents neglect to get their kids’ eyes checked before they start school because it doesn’t occur to them that it’s something they need to do. But, according to the American Optometric Association, children should have an eye exam by no later than six months old, then again by age three, and just before starting school.