People are usually surprised to discover that vision therapy can improve the visual systems of adults. But many are equally as surprised to discover we can help infants and preschoolers, too. In truth, it can be even more effective and efficient at a younger age because the visual system is in its formative stage. “The sooner you address any issues, the less work you’ll have to do to correct any issues down the road,” said Dr. Kellye Knueppel of The Vision Therapy Center.
It’s surprising to think that vision issues could be detected in an infant or a preschooler, but Dr. Knueppel said they can be fairly obvious. “A child at six months of age might have a head tilt, or torticollis,” she said. “Or they might be able to look to the left, but not to the right.” Infantile esotropia (‘crossed eyes’) is a condition that develops between four and six months of age.
Dr. Knueppel notes that some of the issues might be pathology related, and may require immediate treatment. Functional vision problems might include issues like eye movements, eye teaming, and eye coordination.
Our colleague, Dr. Darin Strako explains how vision issues affect a child at a young age in this video.
While the American Optometric Association recommends scheduling a baby’s first eye assessment at 6 months, you may want to have your child seen by a developmental optometrist sooner if he or she exhibits these symptoms:
Eye turns or altered appearance. Abnormal eye alignment can be normal in the first few months of life. If the condition persists, it could be a problem. Keep watch on the general appearance of your child’s eyes.
Developmental Milestones. Vision leads all areas of development. Delays in developmental milestones such as rolling over, sitting up, crawling and walking can all be tied to vision.
Fixation. Can your child maintain fixation? The inability to maintain focus on an object of interest, such as a parent’s face, can be a sign of poor vision development.
Take a look at our checklist of Expected Visual Performance for a child from birth up to 5 years. If a child falls behind these typical milestones by more than 4 to 6 weeks from ages 2 to 5, consider scheduling a Functional Vision Test.
What Vision Therapy Can Be Performed with Infants and Preschoolers?
Before we talk about treatment, let’s define vision therapy, which is used to overcome a functional vision problem.
Vision therapy helps the patient develop the visual skills necessary for good vision. Optical devices and exercises are used to change the way that the brain uses the eyes in order to improve those visual skills.
The vision therapy activities require participation and practice on the part of the patient. How does that work for a particularly young child or infant?
“You can do all types of little games – think about when you make the airplane sound with a spoonful of food for an infant,” said Dr. Knueppel. Having a child following the food on the spoon is an example of a visual activity in which the child is employing eye tracking and teaming skills.
Other examples include rolling a ball to a child on the floor – a simple thing that you generally would do with a child that you may spend more time with or modify to retrain how the brain is using the visual system.
As is always the case – and especially with a developing visual system – performing a Functional Vision Test is critical to pinpoint the issue.
Dr. Knueppel also recommends checking with your optometrist to see if he or she participates in the InfantSEE program. Under the program, participating optometrists will provide a comprehensive infant eye assessment between 6 and 12 months of age as a no-cost public service.
Visit the AOA’s InfantSEE website to find participating doctors in your area.