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What Is a Pediatric Ophthalmologist?

If your child’s eyes aren’t developing properly, early treatment is critical to restore and maintain good vision. They may need to see a pediatric ophthalmologist.

These doctors specialize in diagnosing and treating eye disorders in children. While all ophthalmologists have some training in children’s eye disorders, pediatric ophthalmologists have greater knowledge and experience in diagnosing and treating eye conditions common in children.

What Does a Pediatric Ophthalmologist Do?

Both optometrists and ophthalmologists can examine children’s eyes, test their vision, and prescribe glasses or contacts if necessary. Optometrists aren’t medical doctors but can provide medication for some eye diseases. Ophthalmologists can diagnose and treat all diseases and disorders of the eye and perform surgery when needed.

Young children often can’t accurately describe their symptoms or answer medical questions. Pediatric ophthalmologists are experienced in providing care for children in a way that helps them feel comfortable and cooperative. They use vision tests specially designed for the child’s developmental stage and special equipment that is appropriately sized for children.

Education and Training

Pediatric ophthalmologists first attend medical school then receive additional training in eye diseases to become an ophthalmologist. Then they complete further training in diagnosing and treating children’s eye disorders. The education process takes 13 years and looks like this:

  • Bachelor’s degree
  • Medical school (four years)
  • One-year internship
  • Residency in ophthalmology (three years)
  • Fellowship in pediatric ophthalmology (at least one year)

What Conditions Does a Pediatric Ophthalmologist Treat?

Pediatric ophthalmologists treat children with serious eye injuries or infections. They provide ongoing care for kids with eye problems that result from diseases like juvenile arthritis or Type 1 diabetes. Some common disorders they diagnose and treat include:

Pediatric cataracts

A cataract is a clouding of the lens of the eye, which is normally clear. They can be present at birth or develop at any time during childhood. A small cataract may not require treatment, but a pediatric ophthalmologist should keep track of your child’s vision. Some cataracts do impact vision. A pediatric ophthalmologist can surgically remove them.

Strabismus (crossed or wandering eyes)

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About 4% of children under age 6 experience some form of strabismus, a condition in which the eyes point in different directions instead of working together. Both eyes may tend to drift outward or to the center, or one eye may turn out, in, down, or up. Early treatment by a pediatric ophthalmologist may correct strabismus and keep it from impacting vision development.

Amblyopia (lazy eye)

Pediatric cataracts and strabismus can both lead to amblyopia. This blurred vision in one or both eyes happens because the connection between your child’s brain and eye didn’t develop properly. The most common cause of amblyopia is a need for glasses that goes unnoticed in a young child. If one eye is stronger than the other, their brain may stop using the weaker eye.

A pediatric ophthalmologist will treat the underlying cause, if possible. They may prescribe a patch or eyedrops to use on the stronger eye. This forces the brain to rely on the weaker eye, reducing or preventing loss of vision.

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Blocked tear ducts

This is a common condition in newborns. It happens when the tubes that carry tears away from your child’s eyes don’t open when they should. The tear ducts almost always clear on their own by the time a child is six to 12 months old. If not, a pediatric ophthalmologist can perform a simple procedure to open them.

Reasons to See a Pediatric Ophthalmologist

Your child’s pediatrician or family doctor screens their vision during regular checkups. If they or you notice a problem with your child’s eyes, they may refer you to a pediatric ophthalmologist. Signs that a child may have an eye problem include:

  • Sensitivity to light
  • Crossed or wandering eyes
  • Persistent pus or crust, redness, or watery eyes
  • Frequently rubbing their eyes
  • Squinting
  • Tilting their head to see

Doctors recommend a comprehensive eye exam for

  • Babies born prematurely
  • Those born with a condition that increases their risk of eye problems, like Down syndrome
  • Children with a learning disability or developmental delay
  • Those with a family history of childhood eye disorders.
WebMD Medical Reference

Sources

SOURCES:

American Academy of Ophthalmology: “Eye Screening for Children.”

American Academy of Pediatrics: “What is a Pediatric Ophthalmologist?”

American Association for Pediatric Ophthalmology and Strabismus: “Difference between an Ophthalmologist, Optometrist, and Optician.”

American Association for Pediatric Ophthalmology and Strabismus: “Pediatric Ophthalmologist.”

American Family Physician: “The Eye in Childhood.”

Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia: “Cataracts in Children.”

Mayo Clinic: “Blocked tear duct”

Nationwide Children’s Hospital: “When It’s Time to See the Pediatric Ophthalmologist.”

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