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The question

Parents sometimes fear that sending young children to day care means they will get sick more often. Are such concerns valid?

This study

Researchers analyzed data on 1,626 children from shortly after birth till they were 6 years old. Of that group, 1,344 children started day care before their first birthday. By the time they were 6, children who attended day care and those who did not experienced, on average, virtually the same number of bouts of gastroenteritis, an infection or irritation of the digestive tract that is sometimes called stomach flu. However, children who had started day care by age 1 were more likely to have had gastroenteritis before age 3 but less likely to have gotten it from ages 3 to 6 than were children not in day care. The researchers said this indicated a “protective effect” of early-in-life exposure to the germs that can cause gastroenteritis.

Who may be affected

Young children. The Census Bureau estimates that at least 60 percent of children in the United States younger than 5 participate in some type of child care, often in arrangements that include children other than their siblings. Close contact among children who have not yet learned good hygiene prompts worries about health risks in these settings.

Caveats

Whether the protective effect found by the study would extend beyond age 6 was not tested. Some of the data came from responses by the children’s parents on questionnaires. Gastroenteritis data included only illnesses that involved doctor visits; neither more-severe cases that led to hospitalization nor milder ones that did not require a doctor’s care were included.

Find this study

April 25 online issue of Pediatrics (pediatrics.org; click on “Early Release”)

Learn more

Information on gastroenteritis can be found at mayoclinic.org. Learn more about preventing the spread of illness among children in child care at healthychildren.org (search for “spread illness”).

The research described in Quick Study comes from credible, peer-reviewed journals.