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Eyesight in children

9-minute read

Key facts

  • If your child’s vision does not develop as it should, they may have problems with their sight.
  • You may notice that they rub their eyes a lot, don’t make eye contact, or don’t react to bright light.
  • If you think your child has vision problems, you can take them to an optometrist for an assessment.

How does my child's vision develop?

As your child grows and develops, their vision will get better. For example, at:

  • 4 to 5 weeks old, they'll start to focus on faces and objects
  • 2 to 7 months old, they’ll begin to look at their hands and interact with their reflection
  • 1 to 2 years old, they’ll recognise faces, and focus on near and far objects
  • 3 to 4 years old, they’ll be able to read most lines of an eye chart
  • 4 to 6 years old, they’ll develop their reading skills and recognise letters

Vision problems can slow other areas of their learning and development. These include:

  • physical skills (crawling and walking)
  • language and social skills (talking and playing)

What are the signs my child may have a problem with their eyesight?

It might not be obvious if your child has problems with their vision. This is because your child's eyes might look normal. However, you might notice a change in their behaviour or how they use their eyes.

Some things to watch out for in babies are if:

  • their eyes do not follow your face or another object
  • they do not react to bright light
  • their pupils appearing white or cloudy
  • their eyes look towards the nose or turn outward
  • they don’t make eye contact with you or others

Toddlers and pre-schoolers with visual problems might:

  • often hold things up close to their face
  • rub their eyes a lot
  • see better during the day
  • say their eyes are tired
  • appear to have eyes looking in different directions
  • fall or trip over a lot

What are some common eye conditions?

Some common eye conditions are:

  • astigmatism — blurry vision caused by a slight change in shape of the lens of your eye (cornea)
  • hyperopia or long-sightedness — causes nearby objects to appear blurry
  • myopia or short-sightedness — causes far away objects to appear blurry
  • strabismus — where the eyes point in different directions
  • amblyopia — where the vision is unclear in one or both eyes

Strabismus is also known as “squint”, and amblyopia is also known as “lazy eye”. Lazy eye can develop if your child’s squint is left untreated.

What type of things can affect my child's eyesight?

Screen time

Looking at computer screens, such as tablets and smartphones, for a long time can cause:

  • discomfort
  • fatigue
  • blurred vision
  • headaches
  • dry eyes
  • eyestrain

Australian guidelines recommend that:

  • children under 2 years don't watch screens at all
  • children aged 2 to 5 years have less than 1 hour of screen time a day

Being sun safe and wearing sunglasses

Wearing a hat, and sunglasses that meet Australian Standards, can help prevent eye damage from the sun.

UV radiation can cause short-term irritation — lots of blinking and sensitivity to bright light.

It can also cause longer-term problems, such as:

Preventing eye injuries

You can prevent eye injuries by keeping your child away from potential dangers around the house and garden, such as:

  • chemicals
  • paints and pesticides
  • sharp objects including coat hangers, cutlery, and pencils

Remember to make sure that:

  • you and your child always wear correct eye safety equipment
  • your child plays with age-appropriate toys

If your child injures their eye, see an optometrist or ophthalmologist (eye doctor). They can assess the injury and provide treatment.

If the injury is serious, go immediately to your nearest emergency department or call triple zero (000) and ask for an ambulance.

How often should I get my child's eyes checked?

In the early years, your child will have regular appointments with your child and family health nurse or doctor. They will have their eyes checked as part of their appointment.

It's also recommended that your child has an eye and vision check by a qualified eye health professional:

  • before your child starts school
  • if your child's eyes change in appearance
  • if your child experiences changes to their vision

Some of the eye health professionals your child may see for eye tests include:

  • optometrists
  • orthoptists
  • ophthalmologists

When is a child considered blind?

There are different levels of blindness, which affect people to varying degrees. A child is considered legally blind when they can’t see an object at 6m that a child with normal vision can see at 60m.

The term "legally blind" is used by the government to define someone whose vision impairment entitles them to special benefits.

Your child is considered to have low vision when they have permanent vision loss that:

  • affects their daily life
  • can’t be corrected with glasses

What are the causes of blindness?

Blindness and vision impairment can be caused by many things, including:

How is vision impairment diagnosed?

If you think there’s something wrong with your child’s eyesight, it’s important to get it checked.

See your doctor or optometrist, who can refer you to a children’s eye specialist (paediatric ophthalmologist) if needed.

Functional vision assessments

If your child’s vision is impaired, it’s a good idea to get a functional vision assessment. This assessment can:

  • test if your child’s vision is developing as it should
  • help you find out and understand how well your child can see
  • provide ideas and strategies to make daily life easier
  • help you find out how much your child’s vision impairment is affecting other areas of their development

After the functional assessment, you can start organising the learning aids and adjustments your child will need in childcare, kindergarten or school. These aids may include:

  • glasses
  • large print reading material
  • Braille
  • magnifiers

How is blindness treated and managed?

Early intervention services

If your child is diagnosed as blind, they will be able to use early intervention services. This will help your child's skills develop, and provide emotional support for your family.

Early intervention services include seeing various health professionals such as:

Where can I go for more information and advice?

If you have any concerns about your child's health or development, see your doctor or child and family health nurse.

Services for children with severe vision impairment or blindness

There are services that can help you and your child with daily life, treatment, information and emotional support. These include:

You can also get financial support through the NDIS 1800 800 110.

Speak to a maternal child health nurse

Call Pregnancy, Birth and Baby to speak to a maternal child health nurse on 1800 882 436 or video call. Available 7am to midnight (AET), 7 days a week.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: November 2022

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