It’s just a fact of life that kids are germy … and that groups of kids are bound to bring (and spread) germs. Even at the cleanest of daycare centers, kids inevitably put dirty hands and toys in their mouths, and then they rub their eyes.

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The next thing you know, they’ve caught any number of common “daycare diseases,” like:

So, yeah, germs are a given. But is that reason to avoid daycare centers and keep your kids hygienically harbored at home?

No, says pediatrician Amy Sniderman, MD.

Dr. Sniderman weighs in on some of your most pressing questions about how to boost your kids’ immune systems and keep them healthy at daycare and beyond.

Why is my child always sick from daycare?

If you have a baby who goes to daycare and your best friend has a child of the same age who doesn’t, you probably can’t help but play the comparison game. Every time your kid comes home sick, you find yourself wondering: How come her baby always seems so healthy compared to mine?!

“It may feel that way, at least at first,” Dr. Sniderman says, “but most kids get the same germs at one time or another.” Your child just happens to be getting sick first — and your friend’s child’s time is likely to come soon.

According to a study by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, kids in daycare do get sick more often than kids at home … right up until age 3, when infection rates even out. And in kindergarten and first grade, infection rates are actually higher in kids who didn’t attend daycare, as they’re often encountering certain germs for the first time.

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

Does early exposure to germs strengthen kids’ immune systems?

In theory, yes. This is called the hygiene hypothesis: The idea that children who are exposed to more viruses, bacteria and other pathogens early in life build stronger immune systems.

Once your kid has been exposed to a virus, their body develops antibodies that help it combat that particular virus strain. This prepares their immune system to fight off the same virus next time.

But viruses are tricky. Unfortunately, Dr. Sniderman explains that each virus has multiple strains — sometimes hundreds of them! — which is why catching a cold once doesn’t prevent you from catching a cold again in the future.

How to boost your child’s immune system

You’re not going to love this advice, but one of the first things you have to do is accept the reality of parenthood.

“All children get sick at some point,” Dr. Sniderman states. “Parents should accept that they can’t protect their kids from every illness, whether they’re in daycare or not.”

That said, there are things you can do to help strengthen your child’s immune system and keep them healthy at daycare and beyond.

  • Focus on hand washing. “Encourage kids to wash their hands before and after they eat, after using the bathroom or changing their diaper, and after touching anything in a public place,” Dr. Sniderman urges.
  • Stay up-to-date on vaccines. Though childhood vaccinations won’t prevent common viruses, they can protect kids from serious illnesses like COVID-19, 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.
  • Keep hand sanitizer on deck. One study found that kids ages 0 to 3 had 23% fewer respiratory infections when they used alcohol-based liquid hand sanitizer in a daycare setting. That’s not because it’s more effective than soap and water, but it may be that it’s easier for children to use. Either way, it can’t hurt to have on hand.

Other healthy practices, like eating nutritious foods, getting enough sleep, playing outdoors and drinking enough water, are all important ways to keep kids healthy and help strengthen their immune systems.

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