On April 8, the solar eclipse will last about four minutes and 18 seconds for Arkansans in the path of totality, but damage to a child’s eyes if they look directly at the sun can last a lifetime. While wearing an “I was at the ultimate show” eclipse T-shirt, Pediatrician Laura Sisterhen, M.D., who has worked at Arkansas Children’s Hospital (ACH) in Little Rock for 20 years, shared her excitement for this natural phenomenon while also emphasizing the need for parents to prepare their children to be safe during this rare moment in history.   

"I don't want to completely scare families because the children should participate in the eclipse. It's an awesome event where it illustrates basic principles of math and science and physics. It's a wonderful way to experience awe, and children need that feeling of awe about nature," Sisterhen said. "It is a feeling that gives you happiness, a feeling of wellness. We come together as a community where we feel a bond with each other. It's an experience of something larger than ourselves and beyond human scale."   

Sisterhen, medical director of the General Pediatric Clinic at ACH and a professor in the department of pediatrics at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, treats illnesses in patients ages 0 to 21 in primary care but also gives guidance to prevent injury and illness. She shared expert advice and tips for parents to keep their children safe while watching the eclipse.   


What is a solar eclipse? 

A total solar eclipse happens when the moon moves between the sun and the earth, blocking the sun's light. A bright white ring, called a corona, appears surrounding the sun. When the moon blocks a portion of the sun's light, it's a partial eclipse. Even though total solar eclipses happen every one to three years, they are not visible to most people on the planet, only in the North and South Poles and from the middle of the ocean, according to a 2023 CBSnews.com article.   

Aug. 21, 2017, was the first time in about 100 years people across the United States could see a total solar eclipse. However, only partial totality was visible in Arkansas.  

On April 8, about two-thirds of Arkansas and parts of 14 other states, along with Canada and Mexico, will be in the path of totality, meaning people will witness a total solar eclipse. If skies are clear, others across North America should see a partial solar eclipse. The last time a total solar eclipse was visible in Arkansas was June 8, 1918. The exact start of the eclipse will depend on what city a person is in, but the partial eclipse should start to be visible in the state around 12:30 p.m. CST, according to NASA.   

"I've never seen a total eclipse, so I'm very excited, but it's supposed to be amazing," Sisterhen said. "Once the sun is completely covered by the moon, it will get 10,000 times darker, and stars will dot the sky and there will be beautiful colors along the horizon. So, it's going to be something that children will never forget."  

The next total solar eclipse visible in some states won’t occur for another 20 years.   


What are the dangers for children? 

Looking at a solar eclipse with the naked eye, even for a second, can cause permanent damage to the eye. The iris, the colored part of a person's eye around the pupil, regulates light coming into the eye. Because there is less light during an eclipse, the iris is tricked into expanding the pupil to allow a dangerous amount of UV light in the eye.  

Sisterhen admits while it’s “super tempting” to look, it can result in blindness in a short amount of time.   

"The light directed onto the clear surface of the front of the eye, which is called the cornea, can burn the cornea, and that's called solar keratitis (photokeratitis). The light directed onto the back of the eye and the inner surface in the back of the eye causes damage called solar retinopathy. And that is very dangerous to the eyes and causes blindness and vision loss," Sisterhen said. "Technically, the light, the visible light and the ultraviolet light and the infrared radiation triggers a complex series of chemical reactions in the cells. The rods and the cones in the retina damage these cells and prevents them from being able to respond to the visual stimulus. It also causes thermal injury, which is heating up the cells, and it literally cooks the cells of the back of the eye. Injuries can happen very quickly."   

Children are more at risk of injury to the eye because their lenses are clearer than an adult, and due to excitement, their pupils get larger, allowing in more light, she said. More light entering the eye accounts for more injury and damage.   

"Children may not know the dangers. They need to be constantly supervised. Young men and children are at the greatest risk of injury; we know this from past eclipses," Sisterhen said.   

After looking directly at an eclipse, eye damage can be instantaneous and lead to vision impairment or blindness. Looking at it through a telescope, binoculars or a camera lens is unsafe because it "concentrates the light and causes even more damage," Sisterhen explained.   


My child looked at the eclipse — now what?   

If a child does happen to look at the eclipse, take the child inside or away from the viewing area immediately and monitor for symptoms, including: 

  • Sudden, severe vision loss after sun exposure
  • Sudden decrease in visual ability to pick out shapes and objects 
  • Blurred vision, distorted vision, eye pain or headaches lasting more than one to two days after sun exposure
  • Decreased color perception or gray vision
  • Light sensitivity 
  • Tearing, watery eyes 

A child experiencing any of these symptoms should rest their eyes in a dark room overnight. Eye damage can occur as visual symptoms within 4-6 hours after injury but can take up to 12 hours to see onset of symptoms. Most of these eye injuries do not require emergency intervention.

"You won't know the full effects of the injury until several hours later," Sisterhen said. "So that's important to know - the retina doesn't have any pain receptors on the back of the eyes, so you don't feel the pain when the injury is happening. Which is another reason that it makes it dangerous."  

If the above symptoms continue Tuesday, April 9, following eye rest, call the Arkansas Children’s Eye Center, Arkansas Children’s Primary Care or your pediatrician.  

“Take them in to be examined with an eye professional, an eye doctor, who can look at the eyes and determine if there is injury and what the severity of the injury is and work to develop a treatment plan with you,” Sisterhen said.  

How can children safely watch the eclipse?  

Parents can prepare their children to watch the eclipse safely in many ways. The only way to safely look directly at an eclipse is by wearing “special-purpose solar filters, such as eclipse glasses or handheld solar viewers” compliant with the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), labeled as “ISO 12312-2:2015,” according to the American Astronomical Society. Sisterhen said the society has an extensive and compliant list of suppliers of safe solar viewers and filters parents can reference. These ISO-certified lenses are lab-tested to ensure they “block the visible light and the UV infrared light that damages the eye,” she said. The viewing lens on the sunglasses must cover the entire eye.   

"They're not the same as sunglasses. You can't use sunglasses; you can't even double up on your sunglasses. You really need the special lenses that have been certified," Sisterhen said, adding it's also important to closely inspect the ISO-certified lens before using it. "Make sure there's no scratch or damage to the lenses. Throw those away if there's any damage or scratch to the lens because they won't work to protect your eyes."   

If a family plans to spend hours outside to enjoy eclipse festivities, Sisterhen said parents must also remember to protect a child’s skin from the sun with hats and sunscreen.   

Other ways to safely experience the eclipse are watching NASA’s livestream, making a projector or using an object as a projector.   

“You and your kids can make an art craft and build a projector with aluminum foil, scissors, tape, a box and a white piece of paper. So very simple things you might have lying around the house and make a projector. That way, you’re looking with your back to the sun, the sun will filter through a pinhole in the aluminum foil or anything that has tiny holes,” Sisterhen said. “A colander may work or your overlapping hands or a woven hat. So, anything where the sun can filter through those holes onto the ground or a white sheet of paper and looking at it that way. When the sun goes through the pinhole with a white sheet of paper about a meter behind the hole, that will project hundreds of little pictures of the partial eclipse. So that’s a safe way to look at the eclipse.”   

Beyond having the certified glasses and viewers or tools to experience the eclipse safely, Sisterhen said parents also need to talk to their children about the dangers of looking at the eclipse beforehand. Reading books together about eclipses for younger children can help them understand it more.   

If a child cannot understand the dangers or follow directions to keep approved solar glasses covering their eyes, it is not worth the risk of watching the eclipse, Sisterhen said. She recommends most children preschool age and younger not participate.   

At Arkansas Children’s Primary Care, Sisterhen said pediatricians plan to talk to patient families and provide handouts about the eclipse to ensure they are well-informed about keeping their child and themselves safe.  

"Take it seriously because we know from past eclipses that injury does happen. It happens more likely to children, and the effect is quite serious," Sisterhen said. "Blindness, the loss of vision, can affect a child's entire life. It's something to consider and protect your children. That's our responsibility as parents and adults."   

Did Your Child Peek at the Eclipse? Here's What to Do

Looking at a solar eclipse without certified solar glasses can cause permanent damage to the eye. But professionals at Arkansas Children's are here to help.   

Here are four things you can do:   

  • Take your child inside or away from the eclipse viewing area immediately. 
  • Rest their eyes in a dark room overnight.
  • Watch for symptoms that continue after eye rest, like sudden and severe vision loss after sun exposure, sudden decrease in visual ability to pick out shapes and objects, and blurred vision, distorted vision, eye pain or headaches lasting more than one to two days after sun exposure. Eye injuries may show up several hours later.  
  • Make an appointment with an eye doctor (ophthalmologist) at the Arkansas Children’s Eye Center if symptoms continue after eye rest to determine if the eye is damaged. They can develop a treatment plan.     

Arkansas Children's Primary Care has seven locations throughout the state, including an after-hours clinic.

Learn more from Arkansas Children's about eclipse safety for children.

Laura Sisterhen, M.D., discusses this topic on our Better Today, Healthier Tomorrow Podcast.

Watch the podcast now