Getting your child's eyes checked regularly is essential for spotting issues that are treatable when caught early. Kids should be screened three times in the first year, again at 3 and 5 years, then every two years from ages 5 to 18. Preemies or kids with a family history of childhood eye problems may need more frequent or more detailed exams.
In most cases, your child doesn't need to go to an eye doctor to have her vision checked, since many pediatricians do screenings at well-child visits, and schools often give them yearly too (check to see whether your child's school does). Babies 6 to 12 months can also get free eye exams through the American Optometric Association's InfantSee program.
During an eye exam, the doctor or nurse will shine a small light into your child's eyes to check the pupils and eye alignment, and will use a special scope to look for abnormalities at the back of the eye. Kids ages 3 and up will look at an eye chart with pictures or letters. The doctor or nurse will be looking for common eye problems like refractive disorders (nearsightedness, farsightedness, and astigmatism), amblyopia (decreased vision in one or both eyes that's often called lazy eye), and strabismus (eye misalignment). Amblyopia, which is hard for parents to detect, is treated with glasses and possibly an eye patch or drops. A child with strabismus or a refractive disorder will need glasses. If a screening reveals a potential problem, your child should see an ophthalmologist or optometrist who has experience with children for a more comprehensive exam.
Originally published in the September 2007 issue of Parents magazine. Updated 2009