At seven months, Carter Moll liked to be held close to his parents' cheeks. He liked to feel their warm breath and their features as he ran both of his hands down their faces.
"It reminded us of something a blind person would do," said Carter's mother, Susannah Moll, of Madison, Wisc.
A routine well-baby exam when Carter was born showed normal development of his vision. But then Moll noticed that her baby's left eye began turning inward. She took Carter to his pediatrician, who in turn referred him to an ophthalmologist.
Cataracts -- a clouding in the lenses of the eyes -- are a condition more often associated with older Americans or aging pets than with babies.
"They were very subtle so [the doctor] didn't see it was that big of a problem," said Moll. "He said surgery needed to be done, but I didn't know how soon."
That was last month. But within just a few weeks of his diagnosis, Moll noticed that Carter's left pupil was spotted by white clouds. And after a few days his right eye also developed milky white spots. And less than one month from his diagnosis, Carter underwent two surgeries to remove the cataracts from his eyes.
"The thing that's special about Carter is how rapidly his vision deteriorated," said Dr. Michael Struck, Carter's ophthalmologist at the University of Wisconsin. "The only thing he could tell was whether it was day or night; he couldn't see anything else."
Cataracts are usually considered a condition of age, but they affect three out of 10,000 infants under one year of age. The number of cases increases when children are between one and ten years old, according to the American Association of Pediatric Ophthalmology and Strabismus. A cataract impairs vision by blocking light to the back of the eye.
"I didn't even know that babies could have cataracts," said Moll.
Pediatric cataracts often occur because of abnormal lens development before birth and can either be seen immediately when a baby is born or develop during childhood, according to the AAPOS.
Genetic abnormalities are often the cause of infant cataracts, but metabolic disorders are also sometimes to blame. Cataracts in children can develop more quickly than adult cataracts, and children recover their vision slower than adults, said Struck, who specializes in pediatric cataracts.
Struck said all babies are born with poor vision, and they learn to see when images are sent to the retina, located on the back of the eye. When the retina is not receiving images, the optic nerve is unable to send signals to the brain and the nerve starts to degenerate, he said.
"If you never had hearing, you can't learn to speak," he said. "Well, it's the same for eyes, without the image being presented to the eyes, your vision does not develop."
Dr. Melanie Kazlas, medical director of Children's Hospital Ophthalmology Foundation at Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary in Boston, said that because sight is a new sense to babies, surgery is crucial to develop normal eyesight.
"The critical age of visual development is birth, so we need to take away any impediment in vision so infants know what perfect vision is," she said. "Otherwise, the brain won't learn."