Nutrients for eye development in infants and children


How do the eyes work?

The eye and brain are among the first organs to develop during pregnancy, because they are so complex and control the whole body. The eye is a bit like the camera on your smart phone. It can see and create images that are sent to the brain, and forms memories of colors, faces, numbers, letters, words and objects.

What’s more, the eye has many of the same kinds of working parts as a camera. A lens and tiny muscles for focusing, a retina for forming an image, and a nerve fibre (a bit like a USB cable) for sending the information back to the brain. Plus, there are two eyes that work together, allowing vision in 3D.

From birth, infants have a fully developed eye, with all the required parts, but it isn’t yet fully functional[1]. Until about 4 months, they can follow basic shapes, but their vision is still blurry and short sighted. By 5-8 months, they learn how to grasp objects and see clearer, near and far, in 3D, in color, and even in the dark [2].


Why are the eyes important for growth and development?

They eyes are critical for learning, memory and social skills. Everything infants and children see forms an image in their mind, which makes visual memories. As they get older, they use this ability for drawing, painting, reading, writing, communicating and expressing themselves.

The eyes are also important for physical development. They help coordinate the body during crawling and help to balance the body during walking and running. They also work together with their hands when children grasp, hold and manipulate things like toys, books, balls and musical instruments.

As children get older, their eyes become more focused on smaller details, so kids can do finer things, like doing their shoelaces and buttons, or jigsaw puzzles.


Why do the eyes need nutrients?

The working parts of the eye, especially the light-sensitive retina, are very delicate. They are constantly being hit by light and keep working throughout the day. As such, they need a constant supply of nutrients to help the retina work properly and protect itself against damage from stray light.

Lack of specific nutrients in the body of infants and children can cause vision problems, such as problems seeing in the dark (lack of night vision), problems with focusing, dryness and redness.


Which nutrients are important for eye development?

Here are some of the important micronutrients the eye needs:

  • Vitamin A (retinol): controls light sensitivity in the retina
  • Omega-3 fatty acids (DHA, EPA): support the sensitivity of the retina, help with image processing in the brain and protect the small blood vessels in the retina
  • Lutein: a plant antioxidant that concentrates in the retina to prevent blue and UV light damage
  • Vitamins C & E: antioxidants that protect the structure of the retina​
  • Choline: supports the nerves of the brain and eye
  • Copper and zinc: trace minerals that also support antioxidants in the eye
  • B-vitamins: help to keep up energy levels within the eye

 

One of the most critical nutrients is vitamin A, also called “retinol”, because it is part of the process that controls how the retina forms images. Vitamin A deficiency in children is the ​leading cause of preventable child blindness in the world [3]. It is also an important cause of eye dryness and spotty vision.

Another essential micronutrient is the omega-3 group of fatty acids. Collections of studies in infants and children have shown that the levels of omega-3’s in the body, especially of DHA, are associated with improved visual acuity (sharpness) [4].

Lutein is in a similar class of nutrients to vitamin A, and like this vitamin, it can accumulate in the retina of infants and children [5]. There, it protects the macula, a small part of retina used for sharper image focusing. Lutein has been shown to improve low-light sensitivity in infants [6]


Complete nutrition is key

Getting a good balance of eye nutrients for infants and children is important. Many of the ones listed above accumulate slowly, so they need to be built up over time from infancy and into early childhood.

References
  1. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/6811951/
  2. https://www.aoa.org/healthy-eyes/eye-health-for-life/infant-vision?sso=y
  3. https://data.unicef.org/topic/nutrition/vitamin-a-deficiency/
  4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6251555/
  5. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6629295/
  6. Effect of carotenoid supplementation on plasma carotenoids, inflammation and visual development in preterm infants – PubMed (nih.gov)
Jenny Dang
Author: Jenny Dang

Hi there! I'm Jenny, a writer at Little Étoile with three years of experience in researching and crafting stories that make a difference. I'm on a mission to help moms and their little ones live healthier and happier lives through insightful and practical content. Let's make this journey of motherhood a delightful adventure together!