There is no “magic age” when all kids can begin to wear contacts. Instead, parents should begin to think about contact lenses for their children when parents notice that:
- The child expresses an interest in wearing contacts instead of glasses all the time.
- The prospective contact lens wearer has the manual dexterity and is responsible enough to care for his or her lenses properly.
If there is an optical or treatment reason, such as a large amount of astigmatism, or a large difference in lens prescription power from one eye to the other, contact lenses may be the best option for proper visual development. In these cases, a young child can wear contact lenses if a responsible party such as a parent can help with lens care and wearing schedule.
Except in the case of an optical reason for them, most eyecare practitioners do not recommend contact lenses for children who haven’t expressed any interest in them; if it’s the parent rather than the child who is interested, usually the child isn’t quite ready.
Why Contact Lenses?
There are several very good reasons why children and teenagers might want to try contact lenses.
- Because contact lenses are on the eye itself, they give a wider field of vision. This is very helpful in sports or other activities where reflexes and agility are important.
- UV rays from the sun are known to cause long-term damage to the eyes; wearing contact lenses makes it easy to wear good-quality UV-blocking sunglasses, which can be purchased without a prescription. Wearing good UV protection to protect the eyes is at least as important as using sunscreen when outdoors.
- Most patients in contacts report better clarity of vision when wearing contacts versus their glasses. This isn’t just a psychological finding, but is a real effect of eliminating the distance between the eye and the lens. Putting the lens on the eye results in fewer aberrations optically, and cuts down on the amount of magnification or minification of objects seen. It’s easier to judge distance with contacts, too.
- Leaving their glasses at home allows young patients to be seen by others without them, and allows a more natural look. This isn’t just vanity, either, but a very real effect that raises self-esteem and confidence.
- For some disposable or planned-replacement lenses, care is almost easier than needed for glasses.
For a more thorough discussion of the many reasons people want contact lenses, see our articles ["Contact Lenses: A Great Way to See!"] Part One is a look at the reasons for contacts and the many types of lenses available; part two has to do with the care of contact lenses and safety issues. Parents should be sensitive to the reasons teens want contacts and be assured that they are a good option for good vision and safe to wear.
What Kind of Contact Lenses Should be Worn by Children and Teens?
There are many, many types and styles of contact lenses available today. There are rigid lenses and soft, those for astigmatism and those for near- or far-sightedness. There are even multifocal contact lenses for those who may need a different prescriptive power for close work than they need for looking far away.
The final choice of the best type of lenses is based on the individual needs of the prospective wearer and the type of lenses the eyecare practitioner thinks would be best.
For example, most soft lens wearers presently wear some kind of planned-replacement or disposable lenses. There are lenses meant to be worn for one day only and discarded; in some cases, this is a real plus because it cuts down on the amount and type of solutions and care required. It also means there is no chance of infection from lens to lens.
Other options are lenses which can be replaced after two weeks of daily wearing, (removed during the night). Extended-wear lenses, which are meant to be worn for up to a week without removing are another option that cuts down on the care required from the wearer.
In some rare cases, contact lenses can even be fitted on infants and toddlers, with the parents becoming responsible for lens removal and replacement. This is usually done when there is a high refractive error and/or an irregular corneal surface that won’t allow eyeglasses to provide an image that is clear onto the retina. Contact lenses that vault over the irregular surface can prevent the development of [amblyopia], where the brain can’t form the connections needed to see well. There is a critical period of time when a child must have clear vision or the vision will not develop properly. In other words, the brain doesn’t learn to recognize when an object is clear and when it is not.
As mentioned earlier, another optical reason for contact lenses is in the case of people who have a very different refractive error in one eye than the other. In these instances, spectacle lenses will make objects seem to be different in size, causing eyestrain and sometimes even double vision. By putting the correction on the eye, the perceived size of objects is more equal.
Children and teenagers are great patients for contact lenses, once they express an interest in them and a desire to wear them.
Eyecare practitioners are generally not in favor of prescribing contact lenses for patients who aren’t interested in wearing them yet; this is just common sense, because someone who doesn’t really want contact lenses probably won’t be that concerned about taking care of them, either.
Parents can take an active role in making sure contact lenses are being used properly and cared for as directed, but it isn’t usually a good idea to put a young person into contact lenses if they aren’t ready for them as yet.
Adolescence is a time for decisions and young people need to feel that they are in control of some things in their lives as they start to become more independent. Wearing contact lenses might be a place to start, and can really help a young person blossom.
Ask your eyecare practitioner for more information, and see our other contact-lens related articles for ideas of what kinds of lenses might be best, and what contact lens care involves.