Healthy Families: Can Daycare Germs Improve Immunity?

The argument goes like this: Moms who hire nannies insist that daycare is bad for children because they get sick from other kids. Moms who send their kids to daycare are convinced that being exposed to different germs at daycare ultimately builds a stronger immune system. Emotions run high on either side of this argument so we take an objective approach to uncovering the facts about daycare and the health of your child.

The Prognosis on Daycare Germs

Cribsters Health LogoThere’s no doubt that when you put children together in the same space all day, they’re going to be sharing some germs. Your child’s level of exposure will depend on how many other children your child care provider has under their care, how big their space is and most importantly, the child care provider’s hygiene policy. You’ll want to find a child care provider that has a hygiene policy that is posted and observed by all staff members. This should include a frequent hand-washing policy for caregivers and children (especially after a diaper change or if one of the children spits up), and a wipe down of any toys that might go into the younger children’s mouths. Most states require that licensed child care providers are trained in techniques to control infections, which may include everything from mixing disinfectants to properly cleaning wading pools. Check with your state’s licensing agency for details on what training is required for licensed providers – some are more rigorous than others.

Unfortunately, even if your child care provider has an airtight hygiene policy and wrote the book on infection control training, your child still has a much greater chance of getting sick in group care. This is confirmed by a number of studies, including this one, conducted by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. It states pretty matter-of-factly that “children in child care experience more bouts of illness in the first two years of life.” It’s hard to argue with their findings, and their conclusion is something that we all might have expected, but there’s definitely more to the story.

Does Being Sick in Daycare Make You Healthier Later On?

It’s clear that being in daycare as a young child will increase your chances of getting sick. But in fighting off all of those germs, does the body build a stronger immune system that could benefit the child later on in life? It looks like the answer is yes. And no. In 2002, the University of Arizona published results from The Tucson Children’s Respiratory Study which included 1,246 children who were monitored for colds and other illnesses over their formative years. The study showed that children in group care were more likely to have colds at age two, after being enrolled in a large daycare facility. Interestingly, it showed that those same kids were less likely to be sick from ages six to eleven. At this point, we can imagine that all “child care moms” feel vindicated that they’ve chosen the best option for the long term health of their child. But not so fast.

A Child Blows Her Nose

Hopefully her provider has a rock solid hygiene policy.

The conclusion of the study goes on to say that even though the ‘daycare kids’ seem to have a stronger immunity to illness from ages six to eleven, by the time they reach age 13, any benefit they may have had is negligible and this additional protection has waned. Another more recent study, conducted by the University of Montreal, reaches a similar conclusion – that children in group care will be sicker while they are there, but may “gain protection against infections during the elementary school years, when absenteeism carries more important consequences for school adaptation and performance.” Basically they’ve added a less than scientific opinion about sick days being more costly to the child at the elementary school level than at the daycare level, but the rest of their findings appear to be objective.

In The Daycare Germ Debate, Everybody Wins

In an argument where moms on either side of table feel strongly that they’re doing what’s best for their child from a health perspective, it turns out that both may be right. There’s real evidence to show that kids who go to daycare early on are less likely to get sick when they reach school age, but that immune system advantage dissipates quickly, and soon all kids are on a level playing field. We can summarize these findings by simply saying that children will have more illness when they are first exposed to a large group of other kids. It will take them a couple of years to build up immunity, but it doesn’t really matter if this happens when they’re two, or when they’re six. Either way, their immune systems will adjust to the increase in germs that their peers share with them, and they’ll go on to be equally healthy young adults.

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