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Healthy Kids
New device screens vision health in small children

Monitoring a child's vision health needs to start at an early age, but expecting a small child to read an eye chart accurately is nearly impossible.

"To test kids effectively, we've had to depend on children being able to verbally identify the shapes or letters on the eye chart," says Dr. Pilar Bradshaw. "That means, we've had to wait to test kids' vision until they were 4 or 5 or even older. By doing that, we miss a critical window to spot potential problems."

To remedy the situation, Eugene Pediatric Associates invested in high-tech vision screeners. The devices, which look like fancy cameras, enable pediatricians to test the eyesight of children as young as 2 years old.

"We keep the child's attention on the vision screener for several seconds, and it's able to accurately measure the internal angles of the lens and eye. It can then tell us if screening is within normal limits, or if this child needs a full evaluation by an eye specialist," says Dr. Bradshaw.

Spotting potential vision problems
Vision issues in kids tend to emerge between 18 months and 4 years old. The most common problems are:
  • Strabismus: When the eyes that are not straight or do not line up with each other. If the problem is not treated, it can cause amblyopia.
  • Ambliopia: Commonly referred to as lazy eye.
  • Refractive errors: Includes nearsightedness, farsightedness and astigmatism. These are the most common cause of vision problems among school-age children and occur when the eye cannot focus light properly on the retina, which may cause blurry vision.
Recognizing the signs
The American Public Health Association estimates that about 10 percent of preschoolers have eye or vision problems. But young children often don't know that what they're seeing isn't normal. Signs your child might have a vision issue include:
  • Sitting too close to the TV or holding a book too close
  • Squinting
  • Tilting their head
  • Frequently rubbing their eyes
  • One eye turns in or out
  • Sensitivity to light
  • Difficulty with eye-hand-body coordination when playing ball or riding a bike
  • Avoidance of detailed activities, like coloring or puzzles

"If you notice in a photo that the red eye is not symmetrical, that you see it in one pupil but not the other, that is also a sign that there might be something off in your kid's vision," says Dr. Bradshaw.

If your child is exhibiting any of these signs, arrange for a visit with your health care provider. Vision issues are easier to correct when caught early.


Food additives and plastic containers pose a risk to children

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) is calling on the government to examine the safety of thousands of additives in our food, as well as its packaging. The nation's largest pediatric society released a report stating that many of the more than 10,000 FDA-approved chemicals found in our food and its packaging may affect children's immunity, growth and behavior.

"In a rather scathing policy statement, the AAP says that the FDA really needs to up its game and do a better job at making sure the food that we're feeding to our families is truly safe," says Dr. Pilar Bradshaw.

Calling for changes
Many of the chemicals in our food have never been thoroughly tested. According to the AAP, they were grandfathered in for approval during the 1950s, before a law regulating food additives was passed. And others don't need FDA approval, since they fall under a "generally recognized as safe" designation.

The concern is that children are more sensitive to chemical exposure, because they eat and drink more, relative to body weight, than adults do. The AAP is now calling for new requirements on toxicity testing before chemicals can be used in food, as well as retesting of previously approved chemicals.

Families can take simple steps to limit exposure to the most-concerning chemicals:

  • Avoid microwaving food or beverages, including infant formula and pumped breast milk, when possible.
  • Do not put plastic containers in the dishwasher.
"Plastic gets so hot during the heat cycle that when they dry, the plastic breaks down and those chemicals leach out, making it more likely to get into your food," says Dr. Bradshaw.

The AAP also recommends that families also avoid plastics with the following recycling codes all together:

  • 3 – phthalates
  • 6 – styrene
  • 7 – bisphenols
Glass containers or stainless steel packaging is recommended as best. In addition, opt for more fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables and fewer processed meats, especially for pregnant women. And always wash your hands and produce during food preparation.

"You can get yourself completely freaked out about this information," says Dr. Bradshaw. "Or you can just dig in and say, 'OK, I'm going to do this and this differently,' to the extent that you can make small changes. I think that's a great idea for families."
The power of play

Sisters 7-year-old Charlotte and 9-year-old Emmarain Hoogendoorn have ferocious imaginations. When they needed a place where they could fully immerse themselves in their creativity, their parents created them a special playroom.

"We cleared out the space and we thought, 'Well, they're Lego people, they're artists, they're creators, they love imagination play. And they like to have a big wide-open space,'" says the girls' mom, Christie Hoogendoorn. "So, we put together a room that allows them a place to do everything they love."

The girls can spend hours together in their playroom, playing with dolls, building things with Legos, crafting and drawing, all activities that are beneficial to their health in multiple ways, says Dr. Pilar Bradshaw.

"Play is important for their social development and emotional development, and we also think it's really important for their cognitive development, as well," says Dr. Bradshaw.

The amount of time that kids spend playing each day has been declining for decades. To help remedy that, Dr. Bradshaw and her staff have started to issue "prescriptions for play" to families at well-check-ups, to encourage at least one hour of hands-on play daily.

"Now that technology has been here for a while, we're starting to see more and more studies that show that learning everything on screens, in two, flat dimensions, doesn't have the same impact on your brain," says Dr. Bradshaw. "Kids need to use their hands and their senses and interact with one another."

Different types of play
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, different types of play are beneficial to kids in different ways:

  • Toys and object play: Babies use their sensory-motor skills when playing with toys—banging, squeezing, even mouthing a toy helps them figure out that it's solid or hollow, hard or soft. When preschool-age children use objects in play, they develop abstract thought and concepts like symbolism. It can also teach them about sharing and taking turns.
  • Physical play: When children use their whole bodies in play, like on the playground, it helps develop their motor skills, prevent childhood obesity and build emotional intelligence.
  • Outdoor play: Playing outside allows kids to use all their senses to build skills like spatial awareness and balance. It can also improve a child's attention span.
  • Pretend play: When children experiment with different social roles, they learn to cooperate. Dress up, make believe and imaginary play also encourage creativity and build more complex communication and language skills.
Engaging in play, from building and drawing to pretending and make-believe, also helps children learn problem-solving, teamwork and how to think in new ways.

"And they're happy when they're playing together," Christie says. "It's not always perfect; sometimes they argue and there are messes and marker and paint on the walls, but they're also having a lot of fun."

Technology and screens are a part of life for kids and families these days, but the key, Dr. Bradshaw says, is to find balance and to understand that play is serious business when it comes to a child's health and development.

"Give them age-appropriate tools that they can build with, that they can paint with, that they can draw or color with, because what you're going get out of it is a much happier, healthier, cognitively sharper kid."

To learn more about the benefits of play, click here.



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