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Ask Dr. Sears: Daycare Center Germ-Swapping

Q. My two-year-old just recently started going to daycare, and he's been sick twice already. I know it's typical for germs to get passed around at daycare centers, but is there any way I can keep my child healthier than he has been?

A. Put a few coughing kids together in a room and inevitably, the germs will spread. Children in early daycare or preschool are simply more susceptible to respiratory and intestinal infections. It also seems like every child, regardless of whether or not they are in daycare, goes through a stage where they are always ill. While daycare children do tend to contract more infections early on, they also seem to build up their immunity by the time they start school, while children who were not in daycare tend to sick often during the first few years of school. It's just a rite of passage as children build up their immune systems. That said, there are several things you can do to lessen your child's risk of getting so many infections at daycare.

Feed your child immunity-boosting foods. Certain foods contain phytonutrients, which are natural germ-fighters. Top "phyto" foods are: fruits and vegetables (in particular, colorful produce such as bell peppers, blueberries, broccoli, pink grapefruit, mangos, tomatoes, and papaya), omega 3-containing foods (especially wild salmon), flaxseed meal, spices (such as turmeric, cinnamon, and ginger), and olive oil. Kids who eat diets richly incorporated with these foods are healthier overall. Also, be sure your daycare provider has a policy about not giving children highly-sweetened food and drink. Excess sweeteners (high fructose corn syrup in particular) can also reduce a child's immunity. My latest book, The Healthiest Kid in the Neighborhood (Little Brown Publishers, September 2006), gives a more thorough analysis on how certain foods affect your child's immune system.

Keep little noses clean. The nose is the entry door for many of the germs affecting the ears and respiratory tract, so keep those nasal passages clear. Practice my two favorite nose-cleansing techniques: a "nose hose" (squirt saltwater drops into your toddler's nose and suck it out with a nasal aspirator) and a "steam clean" (take your toddler in a steamy shower and encourage him to breathe deeply).

Do a checkup on your daycare's hygiene policy. Be sure they have thorough handwashing policies and careful disposal methods after the staff changes diapers. Also, be sure that they thoroughly wash children's hands after going to the bathroom. In addition, see if they enforce a policy of not admitting potentially contagious children. Licensed daycare centers have required infection-control policies, so ask to see them. Finally, be sure the room is well-ventilated with fresh air, and that children are encouraged to play outside as much as possible, weather permitting. The larger the space-to-child ratio, the less the chance of infection spreading.

Keep immunizations and periodic medical checkups up to date. Be sure your child's immunizations are current. During your toddler's scheduled two-year checkup, ask your doctor about infection control in daycare, as your child may have some special immune-system needs that require special medical advice.

Germs are about the only thing that two-year-olds will share freely! But, if you work together with your daycare provider, you'll succeed in keeping your child as healthy as possible.