More Children Are Being Diagnosed With Vision Problems; Unexpected Scrutiny

How do you and your child overcome the unexpected challenges of problematic vision and eyeglasses? WSJ’s Ellen Byron and Tanya Rivero discuss. Photo: Stuart Mullenberg for The Wall Street Journal



Updated Sept. 24, 2014 12:30 p.m. ET

For Ann Zawistoski, handling news that her 1-year-old daughter had vision difficulties proved much more complicated than simply buying a pair of glasses.

“I felt this combination of being upset that there was something wrong with my child and a sense of guilt that I hadn’t known there was a problem,” says Ms. Zawistoski, an academic librarian in Northfield, Minn. “Then there was dealing with how to keep her glasses on.”

Toddlers wearing glasses look adorable, but the cuteness can cause problems. Many children who are still getting used to glasses find wearing them brings unwanted and unrelenting attention. Some people may even accuse parents of putting fake glasses on their children to be trendy.

Glasses have a serious function, though, and sometimes they are crucial to normal development of a child’s vision and brain. Eyeglasses can fix more than near or farsightedness and may address common conditions such as amblyopia, or “lazy eye,” and eye misalignment. Sometimes doctors require children to wear an eye patch to teach the brain to use vision stimulation from the weaker eye rather than ignore it.

The number of preschool-aged children needing glasses is expected to rise as diagnostic tools improve and eye-health awareness increases, doctors say. In the U.S., as many as one in 20 preschool-aged children has a vision problem, according to a study published in 2011 in the journal Pediatrics.

More parents, meanwhile, find they have to navigate an unexpected flood of challenges, such as dealing with public scrutiny, explaining why beloved cartoon characters don’t wear glasses and keeping the frames on their toddlers.

In some ways, growing up wearing glasses isn’t much different than learning to put on soccer shin guards or carry a backpack to school. After the initial agitation of getting accustomed to wearing frames, young children often express relief and surprise that they can see better. The diagnosis is often emotionally charged for parents, who don’t want a lifetime of challenges and potential teasing for their child.

Kristin Ellsworth remembers the day her 4-year-old daughter pulled off her princess crown, crestfallen, and said, “Princesses don’t wear glasses.”

Ms. Ellsworth soon after founded Peeps Eyewear, based in Madison, Wis., which sells colorful frames and an accompanying book, “Princesses Wear Glasses.” A line for boys is coming soon, Ms. Ellsworth says.


To encourage children to enjoy their glasses, Ms. Ellsworth and Ms. Zawistoski in 2012 created the “Great Glasses Play Day,” a national celebration held in May. Some 28 U.S. cities participated this year. “We’re making sure the kids see that wearing glasses is normal,” says Ms. Zawistoski.

In Portland, Ore., the event this year drew about 250 people, says Jessica Butler, a local organizer whose son Scott has worn glasses since having cataract surgery as a newborn. The party, sponsored by nearby businesses and a hospital, included a giant piñata in the shape of an eye patch, a photo booth and a supply of fake glasses for friends and siblings who didn’t have real ones.


Noelle Townsend slides at a play date for children with glasses in Portland, Ore. STUART MULLENBERG FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

“I started wearing glasses as a young kid, too, and I remember hating them,” says Ms. Butler. “I just want my son to feel cool and see that so many other kids wear glasses, too.”

Moving fast to detect eyesight issues is crucial, doctors say, because correcting a child’s vision early can help curb permanent damage.

“The brain is like cement hardening—you can’t mold and shape it as easily the older children get,” says Geoffrey Bradford, a professor of pediatric ophthalmology at West Virginia University School of Medicine and a member of the executive committee for ophthalmology for the American Academy of Pediatrics.

The pediatrics group recommends that vision screening begin at age 3 during the annual check-up with a pediatrician. At every well-child appointment before age 3, including at birth, doctors typically look for irregularities in the eyes and ask whether parents have any vision concerns, Dr. Bradford says.

Patients who have a family history of eye problems, or who exhibit symptoms such as eyes crossing, drooping eyelids or infections, should seek earlier attention.

Meanwhile, the American Optometric Association recommends that all babies be examined by an optometrist or ophthalmologist between the ages of six and 12 months, and annually after that.

“Parents take their kids to the dentist, even for baby teeth that only have to last a few years, but your eyes have to last a lifetime,” says Andrea Thau, vice president of the American Optometric Association and a New York optometrist.

Ms. Zawistoski, who had often turned to online communities for parenting guidance, found few resources when she learned in 2007 that her then-toddler, Zoe, was farsighted and would need glasses. She later learned her daughter would need corrective surgery and would wear an eye-patch.

In 2008, Ms. Zawistoski started an online community for parents of young children with vision problems, called Little Four Eyes.

Once a child begins wearing glasses, scrutiny from strangers is a frequent nuisance, parents say. Ms. Butler founded her Portland-based company, Eye Power Kids Wear, after realizing that many other parents were enduring the same disturbing comments she heard when out with her son.


Scott Butler, left and his friend Elias Hayes at a Portland, Ore. play date. STUART MULLENBERG FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

One of her best-selling children’s T-shirt designs reads, “Yes, My Glasses Are Real”—inspired by the most common question she and her son, now 2, often get. After fake eyeglasses became a popular fashion accessory among some adults, many passersby would often assume that Ms. Butler was dressing up her son according to the trend, too, she says.

Getting a very young child to wear glasses every day requires creative parenting, says Katheryn Dabbs Schramm, chief executive of A Child’s View Inc., a children’s optical chain based in Laguna Hills, Calif.


“The technique we suggest is persuasion—every time Joey takes glasses off, mommy or daddy is there to immediately put them on and say ‘Only mommy or daddy takes your glasses off,’ ” she says.

Parents often turn to pliable silicone tips that curl around ears to secure the glasses. Frequent adjustments at an optical shop help keep frames fitting well, too, especially when balanced over a tiny nose.

Still, costly accidents happen. Ashley Pharris, a stay-at-home mother in Ladera Ranch, Calif., says her rough-and-tumble son started wearing glasses when he was 2, and has needed his lenses replaced every four-to-six weeks for the past two years. His frames need adjusting every 10 to 14 days—”if we’re lucky,” she says. She estimates having spent nearly $5,000 on glasses and repairs.

The extra vigilance and expense are worth it, says Ms. Pharris. “One of the most emotional things for me was when he first put on his glasses,” she says. “He looked up at me like he had never seen my face up close before.”

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