Can Daycare Build My Child's Immune System?
Reviewed by Justin Morgan, MD, FAAP, Board Certified Pediatrician
- Children who attend daycare at a young age initially get sick more often, but early exposure to germs helps build immunity.
- Babies who go to daycare may have a lower risk of having asthma when they get older.
- Kids who attend daycare also seem less likely to develop childhood leukemia.
You’ve probably heard that kids who go to daycare get sick more often—but is there a bright side to all the sniffles and colds? Does exposure to more kids at a young age actually help your child develop better immunity?
At birth, a baby’s immune system is immature. Your baby does have some inborn protection, largely thanks to antibodies he or she was exposed to in utero. Breastfed babies also benefit from the antibodies in their mother’s milk. But an infant’s immune system really starts to strengthen when the baby is exposed to bacteria and viruses in the environment. Yes, these pathogens will sometimes make your baby feel lousy, but they also prompt the production of natural antibodies so he or she can better fight off infections in the future. That means kids who are around more germs from an early age will likely have stronger immune systems by the time they start school.
The notion that children in daycare get sick more often when they’re young but benefit from improved immunity later isn’t just a theory; there’s ample research to back it up. For example, a Canadian study published in JAMA Pediatrics revealed that kids who started group child care prior to age two-and-a-half contracted fewer respiratory and ear infections between ages five to eight compared to those who had not been in daycare. Researchers from the University of Arizona College of Medicine found that the protection might last even longer. In their study, children who had attended daycare as toddlers contracted fewer colds all the way up to age 13.
Daycare may also lower a child’s risk of developing asthma, according to a study from the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology. Researchers discovered that kids who were prone to the condition because their mothers had asthma or allergies had lower levels of IgE antibodies (an indicator of allergic sensitivity) if they went to daycare. Interestingly, there’s also an association between group care and a lower risk of leukemia, though it’s not entirely clear why.
Despite these perks, parents may want to consider postponing daycare enrollment until a baby is 3 months old. Contagious infections that are normally relatively minor can be much more serious in newborns, and if your child develops a fever of 100.4 °F or greater before three months of age, he or she may need to be hospitalized.
- JAMA Pediatrics. Influence of Attendance at Day Care on the Common Cold From Birth Through 13 Years of Age.
- JAMA Pediatrics. Short- and Long-term Risk of Infections as a Function of Group Child Care Attendance.
- Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology. Influence of early day-care exposure on total IgE levels through age 3 years.
- Ma X, Buffler PA, Selvin S, Matthay KK, Wiencke JK, Wiemels JL, Reynolds P. Daycare attendance and risk of childhood acute lymphoblastic leukaemia. Br J Cancer. 2002 May 6;86(9):1419-24.