The Surprising Effect of Pregnancy and Nursing on Eyesight


I was at the grocery store when I realized I couldn't see.

I couldn't read any of the soup can labels no matter how close I stood to them. Everything was so blurry, I couldn't determine the difference between Cream of Mushroom or Cream of Chicken, and I panicked.

When did my vision take this awful turn for the worse?

On the way home, I realized that street signs were blurry, and I could no longer read any numbers from far away.

As soon as I could make an appointment, I went to the University of California School of Optometry for a full exam. Sitting nervously in the big chair, I attempted to read a series of images that just looked blurry—and sometimes double—to me. For a person who is used to passing eye exams with flying colors, it was a humbling experience.

The diagnosis was astigmatism, presbyopia, and hyperopia, and she created an eyeglass prescription for me, suggesting that I start wearing the glasses when I'm reading and gradually work up to wearing them more often.

As her supervisor, Robert DiMartino, OD, a professor of clinical optometry, completed the last pieces of paperwork, we chatted about our families. I mentioned that my daughter is 7 months old and he stopped.

"Are you nursing?" he asked.

"Sure," I said.

He went on to explain that being a lactating mother could very well explain the change in my vision.

I was surprised. My life was restricted in a hundred ways during my pregnancy, and I can't take even a sip of wine without a twinge of guilt now that I'm nursing. Now I won't be able to see soup cans until I wean my daughter?

Apparently, pregnancy and nursing may alter eyesight, sometimes considerably, but the change is almost always temporary. (I also learned, after my exam, that nursing women generally don't have their pupils dilated, since it is not known whether phenylephrine hydrochloride is excreted in human milk.)

"During pregnancy and lactation, women may experience changes in their refractive error," Dr. DiMartino explained. A refractive error alters your vision by causing the eye to have trouble focusing, which would explain the sudden onset of astigmatism for me.

Dr. DiMartino said there isn't a typical diagnosis for women who are pregnant or nursing. However, he added, "I think it would be best to say that refractive error can be variable during pregnancy and lactation and that a final prescription should be determined following the first menstrual cycle following lactation."

So it looks like I'll be squinting at the soup cans for the next several months.

But why does this occur? According to Parents Magazine, the fluid buildup that also accounts for impressive cankles and fingers too bloated for wedding rings can also affect the lens and cornea of the eye. But as Dr. DiMartino said, there is no common eye problem for pregnant women—our eyesight sometimes reacts to the hormonal changes and other physical effects of childbearing.

Women who have any preexisting eye conditions, like glaucoma, high blood pressure, or diabetes, and women who have taken fertility treatments should also be extra vigilant with their eyesight, because these conditions may put you at greater risk for vision changes.

An informal survey of mothers in my community resulted in a surprising number of women who experienced a change in their eyesight surrounding the birth of their children. One mom didn't realize how bad her eyesight had become until she tried to renew her driver's license, and was told by the DMV representative that she wasn't the first pregnant woman to make this discovery there.

Another woman has been besieged by floaters in her eyes that started with her first child.

And yet another mom discovered that her eyesight temporarily improved during her first pregnancy—apparently a "myopic refractive error" in her favor!

My aunt experienced vision problems just before giving birth to my cousin too—it's kind of amazing how prevalent the eye issues are among pregnant and nursing women; I was surprised I hadn't heard of this effect before.

So for the time being, I'm going to enjoy nursing my little daughter and looking down at her, albeit through blurry eyes.