From the day 6-year-old Victoria was fitted with purple-framed glasses, I knew this request would come.
But I didn’t think it would happen at age 11.
When Tori first asked for contact lenses, my gut reaction was that she’s too young. Contacts, I told her, are for teens and young adults. I didn’t get them until I was almost 20.
Rolling her eyes as high as heaven, Tori informed me that her glasses make it difficult to run at her cross country meets and that she hates the tan lines she gets from her black frames during our blazing summers. A few of her friends already wear contacts, she added.
And although she tries not to care what people say, a few “four-eyes” jokes from friends bothered her.
So I made an appointment with her optometrist. “Exactly how young is too young for contact lenses?” I asked.
“It’s a case-by-case basis,” said Dr. Aleta Gong, a developmental optometrist and owner of Accent Eyecare and Sports Vision Therapy in Phoenix. “But the average is usually around 10 or 11 when kids start wearing them.”
Even infants can wear contacts if there is a reason for it, she said. Some children are born with medical conditions like congenital cataracts (clouded lenses). In cases like that, an ophthalmologist takes the cataracts out, then sends the family to a specialist like Gong.
“We can fit the baby with contact lenses that the parents can put in and take out,” she says.
For some tweens, the argument for contact lenses often boils down to the “coolness” factor and how they see themselves at this very self-conscious age.
Gong says a lot of kids don’t mind wearing glasses now that there are so many trendy frames to choose from — unlike the choices available when she was growing up. Still, she cites a recent study showing that children who wear contacts have higher self-esteem.
“Wearing contacts significantly improves how children and teens feel about their appearance,” she says.
Contacts also help many young athletes with less-than-perfect vision perform their best. The American Optometric Association recommends athletes wear either contact lenses or approved protective prescription eyewear.
“In heavy contact sports for kids, we do like the impact resistant, polycarbonate glasses, so that if a ball comes in toward the child, they’ve got that extra protection for the eye,” Gong says. “The downside is that frames can still sometimes break during these sports, and that’s when you may get an injury. Or if they’re sweating a lot, glasses may fog up.”
Gong says contacts can give athletes better side vision and depth perception, and they fit better under protective head gear or goggles.
On the downside, problems like eye infections can occur when contact lens wearers are lax about cleansing and storing their lenses. Kids have to be diligent about washing their hands before touching their contacts.
“Another concern is falling asleep with them still in the eyes,” Gong says. “So if parents are really worried about that, there are daily-wear contact lenses available, but you have to make sure with your doctor that you’re a good candidate for those types.”
Surprisingly, kids often take better care of their contact lenses than adults do — but only kids who are already capable in other areas of their lives. Parents should look for signs of maturity — and responsibility when considering contact lenses for their children.
When children ask to wear contacts, “that usually means they are highly motivated,” Gong says. “If they do their chores on time and keep their rooms clean, or if they already have glasses and they’re not losing them all the time, they are most likely ready for contact lenses.”
Another test is whether kids can put contacts in their eyes by themselves.
Kids typically can take a trial run with a sample pair of contacts before parents fully commit to lenses — which came in handy with Tori. She was beyond excited to show off her contacts to her friends, despite having had a little trouble getting them in her eyes at the doctor’s office. But her enthusiasm quickly waned.
“I swear I can feel them in there, Mama,” Tori told me as she rubbed her bottom lid. “It feels like a bug is in my eye. … Can I just have my glasses back?”
“Of course, baby,” I said.