BACKGROUND: Patching the fellow eye in infancy is a well recognised therapy to encourage visual development in the lensectomised eye in cases of unilateral congenital cataract. The possibility of iatrogenic deficits of the fellow eye was investigated by comparing the vision of these patients with untreated unilateral patients and binocularly normal controls. METHODS: Sweep visual evoked potentials (VEPs) offer a rapid and objective method for estimating grating acuity. Sweep VEPs were used to estimate acuity in 12 children aged between 4 and 16 years who had had a congenital cataract removed in the first 13 weeks of life. The acuities of aphakic and fellow phakic eye were compared with the monocular acuities of similarly aged children who have good binocular vision, and with children with severe untreated uniocular visual impairment. Recognition linear acuities were measured with a linear Bailey-Lovie logMAR chart and compared with the sweep VEP estimates. RESULTS: A significant difference was found between Bailey-Lovie acuity of the fellow eye of the patient group and the right eye of binocular controls, and the good eye of uniocular impaired patients (one way ANOVA, p < 0.01). However, this was not evident for a similar comparison with sweep VEP estimates. There was no significant difference between the right and left eye acuities in binocular controls measured by the two techniques (paired t test). CONCLUSION: A loss of recognition acuity in the fellow phakic eye of patients treated for unilateral congenital cataract has been demonstrated with a logMAR chart. This loss was not apparent in children who have severe untreated uniocular visual impairment and may therefore be an iatrogenic effect of occlusion. An acuity loss was not apparent in the patient group using the sweep VEP method. Sweep VEP techniques have a place for objectively studying acuity in infants and in those whose communication difficulties preclude other forms of behavioural test. The mean sweep VEP acuity for the control groups is 20 cpd--that is, about 6/9. When acuities higher than this are under investigation--for example, in older children, slower transient VEP recording may be more appropriate, because higher spatial frequency patterns are not as visible at higher temporal rates (for example, 8 Hz used in sweep VEP recordings).