Monitoring your child’s vision is an integral part of ensuring they remain healthy. (Learn More) In fact, babies are checked for eye problems after birth and then checked again at about 6 months of age.

Eye doctors for children can detect issues that may come up as your child grows. Some parents erroneously believe that school eye exams are enough to catch every problem that could occur with their child’s vision.

While pediatricians may spot a possible eye issue, you’ll likely be referred to a pediatric eye doctor if an issue arises. If your child has an eye problem, it’s worth it to see a pediatric eye doctor versus a standard eye doctor. (Learn More)

Types of Eye Doctors

female optometrist covering eye of little girl

Most people have probably visited an optician, but these are not eye doctors. Opticians are professionals who may have done apprenticeships with eye doctors. They can repair glasses and help patients buy the right pair of eyeglasses or contact lenses.

Opticians cannot diagnose eye conditions or perform surgery. Optometrists and ophthalmologists can do these things, but most people do not know the differences between these specialists.

  • Optometrists: Considered primary care doctors for the eyes, optometrists can diagnose, manage, treat, and examine diseases or conditions. They can also prescribe medications, perform in-office procedures, and treat patients before or after surgery. Optometrists specialize in different areas of eye care, including pediatric eye care. They are acknowledged as OD, doctors of optometry.
  • Ophthalmologists: These professionals choose a specialty and will have an MD (doctor in medicine) or DO (doctor of osteopathic medicine) after their name. Like optometrists, they can specialize in pediatric care. In addition to diagnosing, managing, and treating eye issues, ophthalmologists can also perform eye surgery.
  • Orthoptist: These are professionals who focus on eye alignment issues. They are addressed with CO behind their name.

Both optometrists and ophthalmologists can prescribe glasses and contacts.

Why Monitor Your Child’s Eye Health

Screening your child’s vision is essential to their overall health. Regular eye exams can help them succeed in school, correct eye problems if they arise, and contribute to good health outcomes.

The American Academy of Ophthalmologists has set these guidelines for when children’s eyesight should be monitored:

  • After birth: A pediatrician, family doctor, or ophthalmologist should perform a red reflex test on infants. This will check whether or not their vision is normal. If an infant comes from a family with a history of eye issues, is premature, or has other risks that could result in vision problems, more intensive monitoring may be recommended.
  • Between 6 months and 1 year: A family doctor, pediatrician, ophthalmologist, or other qualified health care professional should conduct an eye exam for infants between the ages of 6 months to 1 year old.
  • Preschool age: In addition to an overall vision check, a child’s eye alignment should be checked between the ages of 3 and 3½.
    • Vision test: Photo screening is one way to check a child’s vision if they are not old enough for a routine eye exam. Once a child is old enough to understand how to cooperate with a vision screening, they can be tested using an eye chart to see if their near, middle, and distance vision is normal.
    • Alignment test: Children should also be monitored for lazy eye (amblyopia), misalignment of the eyes (strabismus), and conditions that cause vision distortions, such as myopia, astigmatism, or hyperopia.
  • Ages 6 to 18 (school age): A school nurse, pediatrician, optometrist, ophthalmologist, or other trained professional can monitor a child’s vision if a problem is suspected. A regular test can usually identify conditions like myopia or nearsightedness, which is common in many children. Glasses or contacts can be prescribed and will allow a child to succeed. Children should see an eye doctor once a year. 

Pediatric Eye Doctor Visits: An Overview

eye doctor working with child

Visual problems often lead to problems in school.

Your child may not always notice if they have problems with their eyesight. We all adjust somewhat to eyesight changes, so it’s worth it to see a professional. Children should visit a pediatric eye doctor even if they have pass a regular vision exam.

Here is what you can expect in a pediatric eye exam:

  • An optometrist will usually dilate your child’s eyes during their first visit. They will write a prescription for needed medications or treatments to address an eye problem, or write a prescription for glasses. Optometrists may refer your child to an ophthalmologist for certain conditions.
  • Orthoptists will monitor the alignment of your child’s eyes and do a vision test. They may work with an ophthalmologist to correct eye problems. They may also prescribe eye exercises, patches, eye drops, or possible surgery.
  • Pediatric ophthalmologists conduct routine eye exams. They can prescribe corrective eyewear, diagnose visual processing conditions and eye conditions that result from other diseases, and provide care after eye injuries. They can also perform surgery or microsurgery to correct vision problems.

How to Find a Pediatric Eye Doctor 

Schools and pediatricians can generally provide referrals for pediatric eye doctors.

  • Find out if a potential eye doctor is a member of any professional organizations, such as the American Academy of Optometry.
  • Ask what happens if your child has issues that fall outside the doctor’s specialty
  • If you have Medicare or vision insurance, ask whether they accept your plan. If your potential eye doctor is not in your network, how much will your appointments or services cost?

Make sure any eye doctor you choose specializes in pediatric eye services. Children do not often know what is wrong with their vision. An eye doctor with a pediatric specialty will have the right skills to diagnose your child and the right bedside manner to put your child at ease if problems arise.

Frequently Asked Questions

eye doctor putting lenses on child

What is the difference between a standard eye exam and a pediatric eye exam?

A routine eye exam does not always have to be conducted by an eye care professional specifically. Pediatric primary care doctors, school nurses, and other trained professionals can monitor your child’s vision using an eye chart.

A pediatric eye exam is more thorough and often occurs after your child has failed a routine eye exam. It may involve dilation of the eyes, attention to problems with eye alignment, or additional prescriptions. Your child may be referred to a pediatric eye surgeon for certain issues.

What kinds of eye doctors can help my child?

Optometrists, ophthalmologists, and orthoptists can help your child as long as they specialize in pediatric eye medicine.

How do I know which kind of eye doctor should see my child?

If your child receives vision monitoring at school, the school nurse may provide an additional referral. If your child already wears glasses, your optician can provide a referral to an eye doctor depending on what might be wrong.

Optometrists can prescribe glasses and monitor diseases that may affect your child. Orthoptists specialize in issues of eye alignment and movement, and they can teach your child exercises or even form a surgical plan as needed. Ophthalmologists can provide prescriptions, but they are also trained to perform eye surgery and take care of eyes after an injury.

References 

How to Choose an Eye Doctor. (April 2018). All About Vision.

Doctors Your Child Needs. (January 2017). Healthline.

Optometrist or Ophthalmologist: Which Is Best for Your Eye Care? (June 2017). Cleveland Clinic.

Types of Eye Doctor Specialists. (September 2019). Verywell Health.

Eye Exams for Children: Why They’re Important. (June 2019). All About Vision.

School-Aged Vision: 6-18 Years of Age. (2019). American Optometric Association.

What Is a Pediatric Ophthalmologist? (November 2015). HealthyChildren.org.

What Kind of Eye Doctor Should My Child See? (May 2019). Children’s Hospital of Pennsylvania.

Eye Screening for Children. (August 2014). American Academy of Ophthalmology.