Should You Teach Your Baby To Read?

by Bill Sardi

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The television commercial is convincing — an 8-month-old child is shown on screen recognizing printed words on a flash card that match spoken words. The child is learning to read, far in advance of other children, or so says the TV ad. Soon children taught in this manner will be reading books on their own, long before the typical child, who begins to read around age 4 or 5, claims the TV advertisement.

But there may be a downside to early reading that is not clearly explained. Teaching crawling toddlers to read before their eyes have achieved most of their growth, may weaken their eyes, induce nearsightedness (myopia), and life-long dependency upon spectacles.

Nearsightedness should not be considered benign as it is indicative of a weakness in the wall of the eye (white sclera) that later in life can result in severe eye problems — namely retinal tears and detachments, glaucoma, floaters and hemorrhage.

An example would be young males in orthodox Jewish families who are taught to read the first five books of the Bible (the Pentateuch) at an early age. Orthodox Jewish males are commonly seen wearing thick eyeglasses. Sustained visualization of near objects and frequent changes in focus due to a swaying habit are attributed to the high incidence of myopia among orthodox Jewish males.

One study conducted in Israel showed, that among school children ranging in age from 7 to 10 years, males from ultra-Orthodox schools had the highest rate of focusing problems (72.5 per cent) compared with males from conventional Orthodox schools (59.3 per cent), males from secular schools (27.3 per cent), or with females from all three groups (average of 34.8 per cent.

Childhood eye growth

At birth, the eye of a full-term infant is about 65 percent of the size of the adult eye. Eye growth occurs rapidly during the first year and then begins to slow down. Most of the growth of the human eye has occurred by the age of puberty. The human eye keeps growing along with other physical growth and ceases around age 15—18 years of age.

Babies born prematurely are going to have the greatest difficulty achieving vision without the aid of glasses.

A newborn baby’s eyes are about 18—20 millimeters in length and will eventually grow to about 24 millimeters in length in young adulthood. A stretched eye that is longer will result in objects coming into focus in front of rather than on the retina. This is what is called myopia or nearsightedness — up-close objects can be seen with ease, but objects at a distance are out of focus.

Reading and myopia

Even in children past the age of ten, longer time spent on reading for pleasure at close reading distance is associated with a greater incidence of myopia. A study of 12-year-old students in Australia found East Asian students, whose parents are more likely to instruct them to spend time reading, are at an 11-times greater risk to need eyeglasses than other children. Close reading (holding reading materials closer than 30 centimeters/ ~12 inches) and continuous reading have been identified as factors that produce myopia.

Studies show that parents who wear glasses are more likely to have children that are dependent upon corrective lenses, but this is not likely an inherited trait but rather the fact that educated parents are more likely to impart the importance of literacy among their children. Reading more than 3 books per week among 3-to-6-year olds has been found to increase the risk for myopia.

The more time children spend outdoors, focusing their eyes on distant objects, the less chance of becoming myopia.

Other studies show the more hours of the day spent reading and at the computer increase the prevalence of myopia among young adults.

There appears to be another period of ocular stress that occurs around the age of entry into higher schooling, when most childhood eye growth has been completed. Intensive book learning in the early 20’s, such as occurs among university students, carries a higher chance for development of myopia than in the late 20’s, as evidenced by studies cited here and here.

Literacy breeds myopia

Suffice to say, literate countries foster more myopic individuals who must rely upon spectacles or contact lenses for vision correction. In contrast, societies like the Amazonian Tsimane tribe (pronounced cheeMAU-. Nay), who have no schools and forage and hunt for food, have little need for vision correction in their younger years. Suffice to say, the most advanced countries breed the plague of myopia, whereas myopia is uncommon in less-literate undeveloped human populations.

Environment factors

The Eye Digest provides comparative studies of the frequency of myopia among children in various countries as well as pro and con discussion on the causes of myopia:

  • Germany — 10%
  • Taiwan, South Korea — 70%
  • Japan — 95%
  • Singapore — 74%
  • Mexico — 44%

It is obvious there are cultural, environmental and probably nutritional factors involved in the development of myopia.

What can be done to prevent myopia?

The question that arises is, is there anything that can possibly be done to strengthen the wall of the eye and prevent its prolongation (stretching too long) that results in nearsightedness?

It is obvious the optical industry, with $25.8 billion in annual sales (2007), is dragging its feet to find to a cure for myopia. Myopia has become a modern plague.

Modern medicine has responded by ringing up more "ka-chings" at the optical shop cash register rather than search for ways to prevent life-long dependence upon spectacles.

The majority of eyeglass prescriptions are written to correct for nearsightedness. The nearsighted represent about 1 per cent of children at age 5 years, increases to 8 per cent at age 10 years and about 15 per cent at 15 years, whereas farsightedness ranges from 4—7 percent between ages 5—20 years.

The sunlight factor

There are multiple factors involved in the development of myopia, particularly prolonged eye strain to focus on close objects when the eye is still undergoing growth during the early childhood years, particularly when combined with living in an indoor environment. Different rates of myopia across the world point to environmental rather than inherited factors.

We first get a hint of a major environmental factor when we realize the progression of myopia among school-aged children is slower during summer holidays.

Another study shows living in areas that are geographically close to sandy seacoasts, where the reflection of UV radiation from sunlight is strong, reduces the risk of becoming myopic.

There is definitely a greater chance of developing severe myopia in low sunshine areas.

Even in the laboratory, the exposure of young chicks to dim light accelerates, while bright light (sunlight or bright laboratory lights) slows, the development of experimental myopia.

While modern medicine has not strongly pursued what causes myopia, Stephen B. Prepas MD, a pediatric eye surgeon in Newport Beach, California, has attempted to sort out seemingly conflicting studies on this subject. Dr. Prepas asserts repeated close focusing of objects among growing children in the absence of ultraviolet (UV) light may provoke myopia.

Dr. Prepas notes that indoor illumination produces light that is largely devoid of UV radiation, whereas natural sunlight exposes the eyes and body to bright visible light and invisible UV radiation. Dr. Prepas cites other experimental studies showing ultraviolet radiation may prevent lengthening of the eyes. Natural UV light toughens connective tissue (collagen).

Inexplicably, Dr. Prepas doesn’t make the leap from a deficiency of UV light to a shortage of vitamin D. A growing child who spends a sunny summer day outdoors in swimming trunks will make thousands of units of natural vitamin D.

Vitamin D is necessary for proper use of calcium in the body.

It is also interesting to note that when there is a shortage of calcium and vitamin D (which increases the utilization of calcium), a blue sclera may develop, which is caused by a thinning of the wall of the eye, which emanates from visualization of the underlying veins.

A rare connective tissue disorder called osteogenesis imperfecta, which commonly results in bone fractures, blue sclera and myopia, is commonly treated with calcium and vitamin D.

It is not surprising to find that nearsightedness, which is prevalent among the prematurely born, is ameliorated with calcium and phosphorus supplementation. Among prematurely-born children given extra calcium and phosphorus in their diet as babies, only 6 of 55 (11%) children needed to wear spectacles later in childhood compared to 14 of 23 (61%) whose diet was not fortified with minerals.

It is interesting to note that the provision of colchicine, a drug used to treat gout, to young hatchling chicks, results in excessive growth of the eyes and myopia. Colchicine depletes the body of vitamin D and other essential nutrients.

An ongoing revolution in vitamin D science is underway with scientific revelations that a shortage of vitamin D is involved in higher rates of cancer, diabetes, osteoporosis, mental depression, obesity, hip fractures, infections and heart disease. You can now add myopia to that list.

Infants and toddlers are not likely to get enough and their infant milk (via mother’s milk or formula) should be fortified with vitamin D, even beginning in the womb. Vitamin D supplementation should continue throughout the growing years and beyond. While there is no study showing a vitamin D pill reduces the incidence of myopia among children during their growing years, and the remaining evidence is indirect, it would be wise to supplement children’s diets with vitamin D. Modern medicine is remiss in not having conducted studies on the effect of vitamin D supplementation on the incidence of myopia.

Minerals too

Other nutrients that would be wise for growing children to help avert the onset of myopia would be copper and vitamin C.

The wall of the eyes, the white sclera, is largely composed of collagen. Myopia has been described as abnormal collagen formation in the sclera of the eyes. Thinning of the sclera leads to myopia. Myopia commonly occurs in Stickler’s syndrome, which is a collagen disorder.

Copper and vitamin C are required for collagen formation.

Mineral analysis of eye tissues reveals a reduction of copper in myopic eyes. Zinc competes with copper and high zinc/low copper ratios are associated with myopia.

Well-fed babies should obtain sufficient copper from their diet. Cocoa powder is a good source. Vitamin C from foods is not sufficient to meet the needs of childhood growth and supplementation (around 20 milligrams per pound of body weight) is suggested.


Don’t rush your children into reading and leave them with forever-weak eyes and life-long dependency on spectacles. There has been undue pressure placed on children to read early in life or forever fall behind in their intellectual development. Reading problems largely occur among families where there is no family member who speaks English. Read to your young children.

See that your children play outdoors, not indoors viewing electronic games and computer screens. See they get plenty of sunlight for proper bone and eye strength. Stop using sunscreen lotion on growing children whose demand for vitamin D is critical for proper bone and eye health. Sunscreen use is associated with weak bones (rickets), particularly in northern climates. Sun phobia has caused a resurgence of rickets. Parents desire brainy children. Vitamin D is critical for proper brain development.

Eye doctors do what is most expedient and profitable. The current approach to the myopia epidemic is to slap a pair of glasses on a young child and leave it at that. Parents will likely have to bring preventive measures into play on their own. Doctors are going to say what is presented here is still unproven, but it certainly has not been disproven.

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