Before my daughter started daycare at 19 months, I could count on one hand the number of times she’d been sick. Now two months into the daycare germ storm, I’ve already lost count. It’s been a seemingly endless stream of runny noses, low-grade fevers, mysterious rashes and minor bouts of diarrhea. And from what I’ve gleaned from commiserating with other parents of toddlers, we’ve gotten off easy. A friend whose daughter also just started daycare had to cancel plans with us twice in one week: The first time because her daughter had contracted pink eye, and then again five days later, because she’d caught hand, foot and mouth disease.

Henry Ukpeh, a paediatrician in Trail, BC, confirms that it’s normal for toddlers to get sick when they start group child care — as many as eight to 12 colds in the first 12 months. This is because daycare centres are “the perfect environment for the transmission of viruses.”

Many of the typical illnesses found in daycare settings, including the common cold, stomach bugs, conjunctivitis (pink eye), and hand, foot and mouth disease, are caused by viruses. These bugs are easily spread through direct and indirect contact between toddlers in close proximity who are likely wiping their noses, sneezing and coughing, while sharing toys and food.

Ukpeh’s best advice for keeping the whole family healthy is to make sure everyone is getting lots of rest and eating nutritious food. Always wash your toddler’s hands as soon as you get home from daycare, as well as before he eats or interacts with siblings.

Kate Mason,* an early childhood educator in Sudbury, Ont., works at a daycare and sends her two-and-a-half-year-old son, Max, to another one. She knows how futile the war against germs can feel. “At work, we’re constantly disinfecting and cleaning and washing hands. When I come home, I change my clothes as soon as I walk in the door. Even so, when Max first started daycare and I went back to work, we were both sick all the time.” Mason also gets frustrated when parents drop off kids who are sick, but she understands that some parents (including herself) don’t always have much choice. “Yes, I grumble about the parents dropping off kids with diarrhea. But 30 minutes earlier I was telling my husband, ‘Don’t tell the daycare about the fever Max had last night!’”

Michelle Richea, a Toronto naturopathic doctor and mother of a two-year-old daughter, says it isn’t realistic to expect even the healthiest kid to avoid getting sick when she starts daycare. But there are some things parents can do to support a toddler’s immune system. In addition to serving foods that are rich in protein, zinc and vitamin C, and free of refined sugar, parents should consider supplementing their toddlers’ diets with immune-boosting vitamin D and probiotics, both of which are available in kid-friendly drops or chewable tablets. “It’s also important to remember that kids need to be exposed to viruses to build their immune system,” says Richea.

A long-term study conducted by researchers at the University of Montreal from 1998 to 2006 found that toddlers in group child care get sick more often than toddlers who stay at home, but found those same kids get sick less often than their peers during the elementary school years. In other words, your kids are going to get sick sooner or later. For those of us with little ones in daycare, it’s reassuring to know that all the late nights and nose wiping now might mean fewer sick days in a couple of years.

* Some names have been changed.

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