Eye health and clear vision are vital to your child’s growth and development. Clear vision is also a critical component in the development of gross and fine motor skills. Some vision issues, such as myopia, can make it difficult for children to learn, grow and enjoy their developmental years to the fullest.

Myopia, also known as nearsightedness, is increasingly common, impacting approximately 40% of Americans, according to the American Optometric Association. Many of those impacted by myopia are school-aged children.

Below, we’ll discuss the increase in myopia among children, how you can slow childhood myopic progression, and the best ways to care for your child’s eye health.

Understanding myopia in children

As we grow and age, each part of our body must do the same. This includes our eyes. Due to a number of factors that we’ll discuss below, children’s eyeballs can develop into an oval shape instead of a round one, and their corneas can become too curved. One or both of these structural mishaps causes myopia. With myopia, the light that enters the eye focuses in front of the retina, rather than directly on the retina itself. This makes what we see far away appear blurry.

Children with myopia may exhibit one or more of these common symptoms:

  • Difficulty reading or viewing objects at a distance
  • Squinting when looking at something far away
  • Headaches
  • Eye strain

These symptoms can lead to other noticeable issues, including poor performance in school, reduced attention span and difficulties in sports and other activities.

Being aware of these signs and taking corrective action when they appear is one way to help ensure the health and safety of your child’s vision.

How is childhood myopia diagnosed?

A myopia diagnosis requires an eye exam. Your child’s pediatrician will most likely do a vision screening at every well-child visit. If a potential issue is identified, your pediatrician may recommend that your child see an optometrist or pediatric ophthalmologist for a comprehensive eye exam. Your child should also have an eye exam from an optometrist before they start kindergarten. These tests are critical to accurately diagnose myopia and develop a treatment strategy.

Is myopia dangerous for my child?

With the proper treatment, the progression of myopia can be controlled and managed with little impact to your child’s health and happiness.

In most cases, nearsightedness is a condition that can be controlled through a variety of treatment methods. In other cases, especially those in which myopia progresses rapidly, the condition can present significant challenges and be potentially dangerous to your child’s future eye health.

Without the proper treatment, myopia progression can lead to more serious eye health concerns, including cataracts, retinal detachment, myopic macular degeneration and glaucoma. However, these severe cases are relatively rare.

Causes of increasing myopia in children

According to the American Journal of Ophthalmology, rates of myopia among U.S. children increased from 25% in the early 1970s to about 42% in the early 2000s. So, what’s behind this large increase? Researchers have identified a few causes:

  • Genetics: A propensity for myopia is hereditary, and children of one or both myopic parents are more likely to be nearsighted as well.
  • More near work: Near work is any activity that requires prolonged visual focus on anything closer than an arm’s reach away. From learning on computers to playing video games to scrolling on smartphones, kids engage in more near work than they ever did before. Some studies suggest that increasing schoolwork demands have raised the risk of myopia in school-aged children. It’s important for kids to take frequent vision breaks during study sessions.
  • Too much time indoors: The digital age ushered in a generation of children who don’t get outside nearly as much as they used to. Researchers aren’t certain how time outdoors factors into myopia, but they have seen that children who spent more time outside in bright sunlight in their early years developed rounder eyeballs, instead of elongated ones.
  • Vitamin D deficiency: Vitamin D provides several benefits for our eyes and vision, and some studies have shown a direct link between low vitamin D levels and myopia. With much of our time now spent inside, many people suffer from a deficiency in vitamin D, especially children.

Myopia control and treatment options for children

There are several treatment options for controlling myopia in children. While these treatment strategies have been shown to slow the progression of myopia in children, they likely will not stop it. Most children will still progress, but any related prescriptions may be lower, which can help to reduce the rate of associated complications.

The most common myopia control options for childhood myopia include:

  • Eyeglasses: Prescription glasses are often the first treatment option for childhood myopia, especially for very young children. Eyeglasses can be worn at all times, or only when your child needs to focus on objects at a distance, such as viewing the white board at school or watching a movie.
  • Contact lenses: For some children, multifocal contact lenses are an effective treatment option for childhood myopia. Orthokeratology, or ortho-k, involves the use of contact lenses to temporarily mold the cornea into the correct shape. Ortho-k contact lenses are worn at night, and children can begin using them as young as 6 years old. MiSight contact lenses are dual focus, meaning one area of each lens is for immediate vision correction and the other is for long-term vision treatment. Children can start wearing MiSight contact lenses between the ages of 8-12.
  • Eyedrops: Prescription eyedrops, such as atropine, have shown promise in slowing the progression of myopia in children when used in low concentration. This treatment strategy is relatively new and has not yet been FDA approved, but it is being used by some eye doctors to successfully control myopia.

A treatment plan to control myopia is developed based on several factors, including the amount of myopic progression and the size and shape of your child’s eyes. Refractive surgery is not recommended for myopic patients younger than 18 because their eyes are still developing.

When selecting the right treatment option for your child, it’s important to consult an eye care provider or your pediatrician.

Limiting the risk of myopia and slowing myopic progression

While there is no cure for myopia, there are steps you can take to slow myopic progression and improve overall eye health. Limiting the strain to your child’s eyes is especially important during the early developmental years.

To help protect your child’s eye health, consider these strategies:

  • Support them in breaking up extended periods of near-work activities
  • Limit their time spent on digital devices, or have them take regular screen breaks to rest their eyes
  • Encourage outdoor activities
  • Ensure appropriate lighting for reading or homework
  • Get your child protective eyewear, including sunglasses, to wear during sports and activities
  • Fill their diet with vitamins and minerals that support eye health, including vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin D and lutein

The most important thing you can do to protect your child’s eye health is to schedule regular eye exams and talk to your eye care provider or pediatrician about any concerns you have about your child’s vision.

Talking to your eye care provider about your child’s eye health

As a parent, managing your child’s myopia and protecting their eye health can seem challenging. Fortunately, with the right support and care team, your child’s nearsightedness will have little to no impact on their lifestyle or happiness.

HealthPartners eye care providers are highly trained in identifying vision issues in children. If you haven’t already, schedule an eye exam to have your child’s eye health evaluated. After all, the more you know, the better prepared you are to help protect your child’s vision.