Why is my baby in daycare always getting sick?
It isn’t just you and your kids, since starting daycare this year our boys seem to come down with a new illness every week. For the first 6 months of their lives, they barely had the sniffles. Ok well except for the hospital trip and our NICU stay. Since starting this year though, we’ve gone through a carousel of snot, sneezing, coughing, and messy diapers on a nearly weekly basis. With the two of them trading off illnesses, it can feel like at least one person in this house is always sick. So why are they always getting sick and is it normal?
Several studies have tested this and found that yes, babies in daycare do get sick more often. A study conducted by researchers at the University of Montreal found that toddlers in daycare get sick more often than those at home. The good news is that this drops off around elementary school age when toddlers who had been in daycare get sick less often than those who hadn’t. Essentially, kids in daycare will get sick more often in their early years, but will build up immunities so that they get sick less often later.
How much more often though? According to another study done in Canada, much more. Henry Ukpeh, a pediatrician in Trail BC says that it is not uncommon for a toddler to get sick as many as 12 times in the first 12 months of starting daycare. This is due to the perfect conditions in daycare for virus transmission. Daycares are often kept warm, fairly humid, and children share toys and common areas. While good daycares do strive to maintain sanitary conditions by cleaning objects and washing hands often, viruses still propagate easily and across children.
The most common illnesses picked up tend to be respiratory viruses including RSV, the common cold, and frequent runny noses and congestion. Our boys passed back and forth a cold to each other and to us for nearly a month before the cycle was broken. Also common are stomach viruses including norovirus which lead to fevers, vomiting, and diarrhea, all of which are sure to get children sent home.
Not only are these illnesses problematic for the children, but they often result in being sent home early, having to pick them up early, and a visit to the doctor to get a note before they can return. For working parents, this is hugely inconvenient and disruptive to schedules. Adding insult to injury - no pun intended - is the additional insurance cost of the unplanned visits and possible tests and medicine. Parents need to be prepared to take a few days off or work from home for these.
Added to this is the possibility that they might even get sent home for nothing. One of our boys was sent home two days after finally returning after a weeklong cold and fever because another parent reported him as having pink eye. In reality we had missed wiping his eye after his morning nap so some crust was irritating it. Regardless, we had to leave work early to get him, take him to the doctor, pay for an unplanned visit, and get a note to return him later that same day. Other parents can be the worst.
Perhaps most unexpected as a result of daycare-bourne illness are more frequent and stronger illnesses for the parents. Before having the boys I got sick at most once with a minor cold each year. This year, I’ve gone down for days three times due to a stomach virus, a cold, and a major fever that left me stuck shivering and sweating in bed. Though studies have not found conclusive evidence of this effect, it seems likely that children incubate viruses to a stronger point and then serve as attack vectors for them to their parents. Close proximity to fluids (diapers) and breathing (hugs and kisses) makes transmission more likely and stronger. More virus particles are likely to be transmitted faster, resulting in a stronger infection. Parents should be ready to take more sick days for themselves too.
There are a few things parents can do to minimize the likelihood of infections and reduce those that do occur. Cleanliness is the most important protective step. Especially in the first several months at daycare and during the high cold and flu season from late fall to early spring, take every opportunity to clean baby up. Wash their hands as soon as you pick them up. Change their clothes when you get them home. Give them frequent baths every couple of days. Doing this will result in fewer germs having a chance to germinate and infect. Getting enough sleep also helps prevent infection as the body uses this time to fight off viruses and repair from the day. Proper nutrition is also paramount to staying healthy. Food rich in vitamins and antioxidants will increase the odds of staving off a cold. Drinking plenty of water and taking vitamins, both for the children and the parents, will also help reduce the risk of infection. Taking these precautions can’t guarantee everyone will stay healthy, but they do increase the odds of it.
It is incredibly common for children to pick up colds and viruses frequently upon entering daycare or other group care settings. These illnesses will come quickly and strongly, often affecting the parents and other family members as well. There are precautions that parents can take to reduce the odds of infection, but regardless of these precautions, children will get sick. Parents can take comfort in the fact that this may occur more often now, but these colds will mean better immunity and fewer later in life. Now pass the sanitizer.