How to Keep Your Kids Healthy When They Go to Daycare

Parents' top 3 questions answered

Child having fun at daycare

Any time you have a large group of kids, you’ll have germs.

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Even at the cleanest daycare centers, kids inevitably put dirty hands and toys in their mouths, says pediatrician Amy Sniderman, MD. They rub their eyes or otherwise, picking up any number of common “daycare diseases,” including:

  • Colds and upper respiratory infections.
  • Pink eye.
  • Gastroenteritis (stomach flu), which can come from a variety of viruses and bacteria.
  • Hand, foot and mouth disease, which most often affects children under age 5. Symptoms include fever, rash and mouth sores.

Germs are a given. But is that any reason to avoid daycare centers and keep your kids hygienically harbored at home?

No, says Dr. Sniderman, who frequently answers these questions from concerned parents:

1. Do children in daycare get sick more often than other children?

“It may feel that way, at least at first,” Dr. Sniderman says. “But most kids get the same germs at one time or another.”

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According to a National Institute of Child Health and Human Development study, kids in daycare get sick more often than kids at home — until age 3. Then infection rates even out. In kindergarten and first grade, infection rates in daycare kids may even drop below the rates of their home-care peers, who may be encountering certain germs for the first time.

“In my practice, it seems that kids who didn’t go to daycare early on get sick more often once they start school,” Dr. Sniderman says.

2. Does exposure to germs at a young age strengthen a child’s immune system?

In theory, yes. Once your child has been exposed to a virus, their immune system programs itself to fight it off next time. They develop antibodies to combat that particular virus strain.

Unfortunately, each virus has multiple, even hundreds of strains. That’s why catching one cold doesn’t prevent you from catching another, Dr. Sniderman explains.

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3. What can parents do to stop kids from getting sick?

Your best bet: hand washing.

“Encourage children to wash their hands, especially before they eat, after using the bathroom or changing their diaper, and touching anything in a public place,” Dr. Sniderman says.

Vaccinations are also important, she says. They won’t prevent common viruses, but they can protect from serious illnesses, such as meningitis and some types of pneumonia. Flu vaccines can ward off dreaded influenza. And the rotavirus vaccine can prevent at least one kind of stomach flu.

“But children will get sick at some point,” Dr. Sniderman says. “Parents should accept that they cannot protect their kids from every illness — whether they’re in daycare or not.”

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