When you need pediatric eye care for your child, it’s important to know which type of specialist to call first. If you know there is something wrong with your child’s vision, should you take them to an optometrist or an ophthalmologist? Let’s take a look at the main differences between these two specific types of eye doctors.

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Should I take My Child to a Pediatric Optometrist or Pediatric Ophthalmologist?

Optometrists and ophthalmologists are two different types of eye doctors. An easy way to remember the difference between the two is to think of an optometrist as an “eye doctor,” and an ophthalmologist as an “eye surgeon.”

Pediatric Optometrist

An optometrist goes to *four years of undergraduate and four additional years of graduate optometry school to* become a Doctor of Optometry. No matter what type of problem your child may be having with their vision, the optometrist is the “eye doctor” you should take your child to first.

A pediatric optometrist is trained to administer medical eye examinations and vision development tests. More importantly, they know how to diagnose diseases of the eye that can cause serious problems. An optometrist will prescribe medicine, perform in-office minor surgical procedures and therapy, and prescribe eyeglasses or pediatric contact lenses. If surgery is necessary, the optometrist will decide what type of surgery would be best, at what age is optimal, which surgeon would be the best to use, and will provide all of the pre- and post-surgical care.

A pediatric eye doctor is also trained to provide vision care to special needs children, such as those with Down syndrome or on the autism spectrum, nonverbal children, premature infants, and children with low vision or cortical blindness.

Pediatric Ophthalmologist

An ophthalmologist goes to medical school for four years to become a normal doctor, three years of residency to become a general eye surgeon, and one year of fellowship to decide what specific type of eye surgery they will perform full-time. One of the fellowship options is pediatric eye surgery. A pediatric ophthalmologist is trained in performing only general routine eye surgeries on children. If your child needs “lazy eye” muscle surgery, then that is a completely different fellowship called a strabismus surgeon. If your child needs cosmetic or reconstructive surgery after a trauma, then you would want an oculoplastic surgeon who has experience with children. If your child has retinoblastoma eye cancer, then you would want an ocular oncologist. Depending on what problems your child needs help with, you may benefit from one of TEN completely different types of eye surgeons. Who keeps track of all the types of surgeons, which ones are in-network with your insurance, and which ones best match your needs? Your pediatric optometrist.

Which Should I Choose?

Even if you suspect that your child has a very serious eye condition or disease, your first appointment should always be with an optometrist. The optometrist will evaluate your child’s eye health and vision to identify and treat any vision-impairing medical conditions. If the eye doctor suspects a surgical problem, your child will be referred to a very specific ophthalmologist who specializes in that particular issue. It’s much like when you go to your general practitioner (family doctor or pediatrician) and then receive a referral to a medical specialist for a specific problem.