Is daycare a healthy environment for small children, or a breeding ground for bacteria guaranteed to send your child home with the sniffles? As it turns out, it’s a bit of both.
A 2009 study in the Journal of Pediatrics found children exposed to other children in daycares had less risk of developing asthma later on, supporting the "hygiene hypothesis," or the idea that early exposure to germs strengthens the immune system. But a child who attends daycare is also likely to be ill more often, says Dr. Diane Sacks, a paediatrician at North York General Hospital in Toronto. “Attending daycare increases the number of upper respiratory infections and bouts of gastroenteritis (diarrhea) a child will get early on,” she says. “And the younger a child is when he first attends, the more likely it is that this will happen.”
There are a number of reasons why a daycare setting increases the frequency of infections: less than thorough hand washing, a large number of children in diapers and a large number of children overall in one centre. The good news is there is evidence that daycare children have fewer respiratory infections when they start school than kids who have not attended daycare, Sacks says.
Worse than exposing children to potential illnesses is over-medicating them when they do get sick. “I believe the danger in treating coughs and colds is overuse of antibiotics and over-the-counter preparations,” argues Sacks. “The latter are not very effective, and repeated use of antibiotics leads to resistance and side effects.”