Careful clinical-aetiological assessment of visually impaired children is one of the prerequisites for prevention of future, 'unavoidable' cases of visual impairment of children in the industrialized part of the world. In a collaborative study (NORDSYN) between four Nordic national registers of visual impairment, we analysed and classified some of the factors considered to be essential components for the development of low vision or blindness in children. We discuss the conceptual basis for aetiological classification of eye disorders and visual impairment. An aetiological classification system, based on the type and debut of an essential causal factor is introduced. We present data on 2527 visually impaired children from the Nordic countries. In accordance with several other reports from the last twenty years it is demonstrated that prenatal factors, including genetic aetiologies, were involved in a large proportion (66%) of the cases. In children without additional impairments the corresponding fraction was 74%. Genetic factors accounted for a little over half of the prenatal cases, and in a substantial number of children (40%) with visual impairments of prenatal origin, the causes were obscure. In 1/5 of the material some peri-neonatal causal or modifying factor was identified. In 7% only, the presumed aetiological factor was introduced in the infantile-juvenile period of life. Further prevention of visual impairment among children of the industrialized countries would benefit most from a more comprehensive understanding of prenatal, nongenetic causal factors, further knowledge about regulating mechanisms responsible for gene expression, and additional improvements in perinatal care.