If your baby's eye is very watery and there is some discharge, it's probably a blocked tear duct. Also known as 'sticky eye', this condition usually gets better by itself, but it's still wise to check with your doctor.
What is 'sticky eye'?
About 1 in 20 babies is born with tear ducts that are too narrow or blocked completely. This means their tears can't drain away and their eyes are wet all the time.
If your baby has sticky eye, their eye or eyes will water a lot, with tears running down their cheeks. Sometimes there is a sticky discharge.
You might notice sticky eye about a month after your baby is born.
Is it sticky eye?
If your baby's eyes become red, puffy or sore, with a yellow or greenish discharge that can cause their eyelids to stick together, the eye may be infected. This is called conjunctivitis. You should always see your doctor if you think your child has an eye infection. It may need antibiotic eye drops or ointment.
You should also see your doctor if:
- your baby seems sensitive to light
- they are constantly squeezing their eyes shut
- there is a green, white or yellow discharge
- the side of their nose seems swollen
- the tear duct is still blocked by the time they reach 1 year of age
What causes sticky eye?
Tears are produced by glands inside the upper eyelids above each eye. They flow over the surface of the eye and drain away into a small opening in the inside corner of the upper and lower eyelids. The tears then flow through the tear duct to the nose.
Some babies are born with tear ducts that are too narrow. Sometimes the tube gets blocked by a plug of mucus or cells that developed before the baby was born.
Sticky eye normally clears up by the time your baby is 12 months. If there is any sign of infection, your doctor might give you some eye drops or ointment.
If the blocked tear duct doesn't improve, your doctor may teach you a special massage to help shift the blockage. Some babies will need surgery, with a general anaesthetic, so the doctor can open the tear duct with a probe.
You can ease your baby's discomfort by holding a clean, warm (but not hot) washcloth against their closed eyelid for between 2 and 5 minutes.
Cleaning the eyes
If your baby has sticky eye, it is important to keep their eyes clean. You will need:
- a gauze cotton swab, which you can buy from your chemist - do not use cotton wool balls because these can shed pieces of cotton into the eye
- warm water — it is okay to use water from the tap
Wash the affected eye or eyes as needed, following the directions below:
- Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water.
- Pat the eye dry with a clean (or disposable) towel.
- Gently swipe away any discharge with a disposable cotton swab soaked in weak saline solution.
- Do not touch the eye itself or clean inside the eyelid because you may damage the eye.
- Wash your hands again.
It does not matter in which direction you clean the eye. However, with young children who are likely to turn their heads away, it is often easier to clean from the nose outwards.
There is also plenty of anecdotal evidence to support using breastmilk to clean your baby's eye. This will not cause any harm to your baby, but if you see signs of infection, you should see your doctor.
Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.
Last reviewed: February 2020