Diagnosing cataracts in children 

It's important childhood cataracts are diagnosed as early as possible because early treatment can significantly reduce the risk of long-term vision problems.

Newborn screening

All parents are offered a physical examination for their baby within 72 hours of birth and again when their baby is six to eight weeks old.

Childhood cataracts are among the conditions screened for during the newborn physical examination.

Your baby's eyes are checked by looking at their general appearance and how they move. If your baby's eye looks cloudy, it could be a sign they have cataracts.

An important part of the check is looking for the "red reflex" using a bright light. The red reflex is a reflection from the back of the eye that's similar to the red eye effect sometimes seen in flash photography. If no red reflex, or a weak one, is seen, it may mean there's cloudiness in the lens.

Vision tests for older babies and children

Although cataracts can be present from birth (congenital), they sometimes don't develop until a child is older. Visit your GP or tell your health visitor if you have any concerns about your child's eyesight at any stage.

You should also make sure your child has routine eye tests to check for any problems with their vision. All children under the age of 16 are entitled to free sight tests, which they should have about every two years.

Read more about eye tests for children and NHS eye care services.

Referral to a specialist

If it's thought your baby or child may have cataracts, they'll usually be referred to hospital to see an ophthalmologist as soon as possible. An ophthalmologist is a doctor who specialises in eye conditions and their treatment.

Before the ophthalmologist examines your baby, they'll apply drops to their eyes to dilate (widen) their pupils. Although the drops will sting, they won't damage your baby's eyes, and the effect will wear off after a few hours.

The ophthalmologist will examine your baby's eyes using medical instruments that have a light at one end and produce a magnified image of the eye. Bright light is shone into your child's eyes, enabling the ophthalmologist to look inside them.

The ophthalmologist will diagnose cataracts if they can see them in the lens. If your child is diagnosed with cataracts, the ophthalmologist will discuss the treatment options with you.

Read more about treating childhood cataracts.


Page last reviewed: 11/01/2016

Next review due: 01/01/2019