When is it safe for a sick child to attend child care?

Many people have differing opinions on when it is okay for a sick child to attend child care, it’s important to know when it’s safe and when it isn't.

Diarrhea is usually a short-lived issue, sometimes a minor nuisance, sometimes it keeps us home. It can be caused by a variety of things, many of which are contagious – such as food poisoning.

Infants and toddlers under 24 months do not have well developed immune systems and exposure to a very small amount of “bugs” or pathogens can make them sick. Children who attend child care centers are twice as likely to get sick as kids who do not, as there is more exposure to these pathogens. Some pathogens can get onto food and cause a foodborne illness, such as norovirus. Once this is present, it can spread rapidly among the children and adults. So, the question then becomes when should kids stay home and when is it ok for them to come to the child care center?

According to a study in the American Journal of Public Health, 40 percent of sick time is the result of parents taking time off themselves to take care of sick children. Guidelines can be helpful for both families and child care centers as too lenient policies can lead to increased transmission of illness, but too strict policies can prevent childcare during even minor illnesses which can create an undue burden for families. Fight Bac has excellent resources developed to help provide material for training and education in this area. 

Some basic guidelines Fight Bac provides to help you judge when to keep a sick child at home include:

  • The illness prevents the child’s comfortable participation in group activities.
  • The illness necessitates more care than the center can provide.
  • There is a significant risk of transmission to other children. This would include any foodborne illness such as salmonella, shigella, e. Coli, or Norovirus for example. 
  • The child has signs or symptoms suggesting a more serious illness that requires medical attention.

There are more detailed guidelines on what to do in case of an illness, when to exclude the child and when to allow the child to return available on the Fight Bac website. Michigan State University Extension offers classes on safe food handling, including one specific to child care providers. To find a class near you contact your local MSU Extension office.

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