Why some kids need an eye patch, and how to get them to actually wear it.
Perhaps you've seen a young child wearing an eye patch and wondered why, or maybe your child has been to the ophthalmologist, and the doctor's orders include treatment with an eye patch. If so, you may have questions. We turned to two top ophthalmologists (who are also moms) for the lowdown on why kids wear patches and how to make the treatment easier.
Why Wear a Patch?
"Amblyopia is the most common reason for a child to wear an eye patch," says Lauren S. Blieden, M.D., a cornea specialist and comprehensive ophthalmologist at the Robert Cizik Eye Clinic and assistant clinical professor at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston. In order for a child's visual system to develop properly, both eyes must work with the brain in a certain way. When someone has amblyopia, one eye doesn't see well. "If the brain gets a fuzzy image from one eye it will turn off the signal from that eye," says Dr. Blieden. Over time, without treatment, the vision in that eye can be lost permanently. "We patch the good eye to 'work out' or strengthen the bad eye. I tell kids that it's like doing pushups for the bad eye," she says.
The pro of patching is that it can be an effective treatment for a condition such as amblyopia. The downside: "Kids hate to wear patches because covering their 'good' eye goes against their instinct to see well," says Dr. Blieden. But with this type of treatment, you may be your child's strongest asset. "Often the best predictor of how well a child is going to do with wearing a patch is her parents," says Dr. Blieden. More involved parents tend to correlate to more successful patching. Try these tips with your child.
- Find out how long your child needs to wear his patch each day. Check with your child's M.D., but for some kids just wearing the patch for the hours they are at home can actually be quite effective, says Laura K. Green, M.D., a pediatric ophthalmologist at the Krieger Eye Institute and director of the ophthalmology residency program at Sinai Hospital of Baltimore. This can be a big relief for a child who worries about wearing the patch to school or other public places.
- Time it right. It might be tempting to count sleeping hours toward your child's patching time tally, but don't. "The eye has to be patched while your child is awake and doing things," says Dr. Blieden. "It doesn't help to have it patched while he is sleeping."
- Give your child some screen time. Studies have shown that playing video games on small, handheld game devices while one eye is patched can be very effective, says Dr. Green. "If the doctor's prescription is to put a patch on your good eye and play video games with the weak eye that is pretty well tolerated by kids."
- Offer other favorite activities during patching times. You might break out the paints, markers, and other craft supplies so your child can focus on a project he enjoys, rather than the fact that he's wearing a patch.
- Create a tracking calendar. Make or buy a calendar or chart that your child can decorate with stickers to note each successful patching day.
- Offer rewards. Wearing a patch is no fun for kids, so give your child a special treat to encourage her efforts.
- Try out different types of patches. You may have to experiment a little to find the patch that works best for your child. The adhesive on some patches can irritate a child's skin, so it may take a few tries to find the patch that works best. You can also try something like "Krafty Patches" that can be personalized with small stickers and other accessories.
- Get in on the act. Dr. Blieden had one parent who patched her own eye whenever her daughter had to wear her patch. Just don't allow anyone under the age of 10 to patch his eye without being directed to by a doctor. Unnecessarily patching an eye (or even wearing a costume patch consistently) can actually lead to vision impairment in kids.
Finally, keep a positive attitude and remember that it will get easier. "Usually, once the child starts to see better, she becomes less resistant to the patch," says Dr. Blieden. And, of course, a lifetime of better vision is certainly worth the effort.
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