Updated on January 26th, 2024 // by Katie Griffin
Nothing is better than gazing into your sweet little one’s baby blues or beautiful browns. But there are many conditions that may affect baby’s eyes. From blocked tear ducts to red eye, understanding these issues can help you better care for your little one’s precious eyes. Let’s shed some light on these conditions, so you feel more prepared and less worried.
Estimated reading time: 11 minutes
Table of contents
- Eye Conditions Baby May Be Born With
- Eye Conditions Baby May Develop
- Eye Conditions Baby May Have at Birth or Develop Later
Eye Conditions Baby May Be Born With
Blocked Tear Duct
What It Is: Many babies have at least one tear duct that does not drain properly — one in five babies are born this way — making this one of the most common baby eye conditions. It occurrs when the tear duct that drains tears from the eye to the nose is blocked or not fully open.
Signs to Watch For: The primary sign is excessive tearing, leading to watery eyes. Sometimes it can cause a sticky, yellowish discharge and even some swelling near the inside corner of the eye.
How to Manage: Most blocked tear ducts clear up on their own by the time a baby is 1 year old. Gentle massage over the affected tear duct can help, as can keeping the area clean with a damp, warm cloth.
How Do You Unclog a Baby’s Tear Duct?
You may think that you’re supposed to help unclog a blocked duct in baby’s eye, like you might do if you had a clogged milk duct in your breast. However, nothing needs to be done if your baby has a blocked tear duct. They’re simply a result of the tubes that drain the tears not being fully developed yet, so they’re not actually clogged with anything. Blocked tear ducts are rarely a problem, and a vast majority of them correct on their own by baby’s first birthday.
Unless your baby’s doctor has given you any other instructions, simply give it time to correct on its own. If your baby gets an accumulation of stickiness on her lashes or in the corner of the eye, simply use a clean, soft cloth with plain filtered water (slightly warmed to be more comfortable for baby and more effective, but not hot) to gently wipe it away.
Does breast milk help a blocked tear duct?
You may get advice from well-meaning friends or family that you can put breast milk in baby’s eye a few times a day to help with a blocked duct. However, most doctors do not recommend this. While breast milk has many incredible qualities, it can not help open a blocked duct. The tubes simply need time to develop properly.
Is a blocked tear duct painful for babies?
Another reason parents may feel like they need to help fix a baby’s blocked tear duct is because they worry that it’s painful. However, a blocked duct does not cause baby any discomfort. If you compare to a blocked milk duct in a breastfeeding mom, you imagine that there is pain. That’s because a blocked milk duct means that milk can’t get out, so pressure builds up, and it becomes uncomfortable or painful. A blocked duct is different because it isn’t a matter of pressure building up. Tears usually drain through ducts (tubes) and into the nose, and a blocked duct means that they don’t drain into the nose. But there isn’t a pressure buildup; the tears just stay in baby’s eye (that’s why the eye appears watery or teary) or run down her face. Rest assured, though, a blocked tear duct isn’t causing your baby any discomfort.
Crossed Eyes (strabismus)
What It Is: Strabismus is when a baby’s eyes do not align properly and point in different directions. It is common for newborns to have eyes that don’t line up and move together all the time. They may be crossed, or one might wander. This is because the muscles are still developing and strengthening and learning to focus. This is nothing to worry about in a newborn. Baby’s eyes should straighten out and move together by the time she is 4 to 6 months old. If one or both eyes continues to wander after that point, even occasionally, mention it to her doctor.
Signs to Watch For: One eye may turn inwards, outwards, upwards, or downwards while the other eye looks forward.
How to Manage: Early treatment is crucial for strabismus. It may involve glasses, patching the stronger eye, eye exercises, or in some cases, surgery.
Droopy Eyelid (ptosis)
Some babies are born with eyelids that are not fully open. It is usually due to eyelid muscles that are too weak. If the eyelid causes vision impairment then surgery is usually needed to lift it. If left untreated, it can cause problems in your baby’s visual development.
Eye Conditions Baby May Develop
Pink Eye (conjunctivitis)
What It Is: Pink eye, also known as conjunctivitis, can be caused by an infection, an allergen, or an irritant. The infection type can be viral or bacterial. This condition is the inflammation of the thin tissue covering the whites of the eyes and the inside of the eyelids.
- Viral Conjunctivitis – Caused by a virus. If baby has viral conjunctivitis, she may also a fever, sore throat, and other respiratory symptoms.
- Bacterial Conjunctivitis – Caused by an infection, sometimes a secondary infection to a virus. If baby’s eyes produce discharge that causes the eyes to stick together or get crusted, it is likely an bacterial conjunctivitus. This type of conjunctivitis responds to antibiotics.
- Irritant Conjunctivitis – Caused by something in the environment irritating the eyes. Some culprits may be smoke, smog, soap, chlorine from a pool, or pollen. It can also stem from something getting in the eyes or touching the eyes with dirty hands. (It’s important to keep baby’s hands clean, because they often rub their eyes, which could cause irritant conjunctivitis.) If it is an irritant causing the problems, the inflammation will go away when the irritant is removed.
Signs to Watch For: Redness in the white of the eye, swelling of the eyelids, and a sticky discharge are common signs. The eyes might also be itchy or feel gritty.
How to Manage: Viral conjunctivitis usually resolves on its own, while bacterial conjunctivitis may require antibiotic eye drops. Always consult your pediatrician for proper diagnosis and treatment.
Chalazion & Styes
What It Is: A chalazion is a small, painless swollen lump on the eyelid, caused by a blocked oil gland. It is not an infection and they are relatively harmless, but if it gets very large it may start to feel tender.
Styes are small red bumps usually show up at the edge or on the inside of the eyelid. They are a result of an infected pore. Styes are often painful and may make the eye feel sore and scratchy. It may look a lot like a pimple, but don’t try to squeeze or pinch it. If you do, it may spread the infection to other pores. Warm compresses may help, but if it doesn’t go away on its own, you may need to see a doctor and get an antibiotic.
Signs to Watch For: A small lump on the eyelid, which may or may not be painful, and redness and swelling of the eyelid.
How to Manage: Warm compresses can help both conditions. Most chalazia and styes resolve on their own. If they persist or worsen, consult your pediatrician. To help clear the gland, try using a warm compress for 10-15 minutes at a time. You can gently massage the gland (make sure to wash your hands first) to help it release. It may be easiest to do this while your baby is feeding. Give baby’s doctor a call before doing compresses or massage, though. He or she can let you know if those are the right instructions or if you should bring baby in to be evaluated first.
This is simply a scratch on the surface of the eye. It usually occurs during an injury to the eye. It is painful and will likely cause excessive tearing and light sensitivity. Your doctor may prescribe antibiotic drops or ointment to prevent infection in the eye and help it heal.
Cellulitis of the Eye
This is a serious infection in the eyelid or eye socket that needs immediate treatment. It is caused by normal skin bacteria that gets into the tissues behind, around, or in front of the eye. It often occurs after an injury to the eye or an infection near the eye, such as a sinus infection. If you notice your baby’s upper or lower eyelids turning red and swelling, the skin feels warm around the eyes, the eye is bulging, the pupils are less reactive than normal, or your baby seems to be having trouble moving their eyeball, get immediate medical help. If left untreated, it can cause infection of the lining covering the brain and spinal cord (meningitis), vision loss, brain abscess, and even brain damage.
Eye Conditions Baby May Have at Birth or Develop Later
Amblyopia (Lazy Eye)
What It Is: Amblyopia, commonly known as lazy eye, occurs when the vision in one eye does not develop properly, often due to strabismus or a significant difference in prescription between the two eyes.
Signs to Watch For: It’s hard to spot amblyopia, but signs may include an eye that wanders inward or outward or poor depth perception.
How to Manage: Treatment might involve patching the stronger eye to strengthen the weaker one, glasses, or in some cases, surgery. Early treatment is essential for effective management.
What It Is: Glaucoma is a disease where damage to the optic nerve leads to vision loss. This damage is often caused by elevated pressure in the eye. When the eye creates fluid, but cannot efficiently drain that fluid, it builds up in the eye and the pressure causes damage to the optic nerve. (This is not the same as a clogged tear duct, which is fluid that comes from tear glands outside the eye. Glaucoma is caused by fluid inside the eye.)
Babies can be born with glaucoma (congenital glaucoma) or it can develop later (infantile glaucoma). It may be the result of a number of things including baby’s genetics, chronic steroid use, a health condition, trauma or injury to the eye, or a previous eye surgery.
Signs to Watch For: If you notice very watery eyes, an enlarged eye, a cloudy cornea or dull iris (the colored part of the eye), extreme sensitivity to light, or lip spasms, talk to your doctor immediately.
How to Manage: Surgery is needed in most cases to drain the fluid from the eye.
Retinoblastoma (eye cancer)
What It Is: Retinoblastoma is the most common type of cancer in children. 1 out of 3 children with this type of cancer are born with it and it is present in both eyes. This may be inherited or caused by a mutation at an early stage of development. The other 2 out of 3 children develop only one tumor in one eye. This type is often found in older children.
Signs to Watch For: It is crucial to diagnose this cancer early to prevent it from spreading or doing damage to the eye. If you notice that your baby has poor vision (can’t focus on faces or objects, can’t seem to control eye movement, a “lazy eye”), or white eyeshine (the color of the pupil when a light is shined in it, usually red, like in a photo taken with a flash) let your doctor know immediately.
How to Manage: Retinoblastoma is treated by a team of specialists with procedures ranging from surgery to chemotherapy to radiation therapy.
Routine Eye Exams Are Key
Remember, many eye conditions in babies are treatable, especially when caught early. Make sure your baby has regular eye exams as part of their routine pediatric checkups. And always consult your pediatrician if you notice any changes in your baby’s eyes or vision.
As parents, it’s natural to worry about every aspect of your baby’s health, including their eyes. By staying informed and vigilant, you’re ensuring the best care for your little one’s vision.
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