Daycare Can be a Good Thing

Social exposure to other children, including that which occurs at daycare and play groups, has an effect of reducing the risk of acute lymphoblastic leukemia as much as 30% to 40%.

I’m sure I don’t have to tell any parents out there about the incredible guilt working mothers experience when they put their infants in daycare. I was incredibly lucky to have a child with a sunny disposition who actually liked the change of scenery and social interaction that daycare had to offer, so I have rarely had to deal with tears or tantrums like I’ve seen other mothers go through. Kids really know how to work their parents (here’s a video) that makes their techniques a bit more obvious), and I’ve seen more than one mother cry more than her child when she leaves the daycare center.

What I did feel horribly guilty about, though, was the fact that at a very early age, my daughter caught what seemed like every infection currently known to the medical profession. Respiratory infections, fifth disease, impetigo, strep throat, and MRSA, all within the first year. But I think it was the ear infections and tubes that provided the real parental “gut punch.” And I’m still reeling from it seven years later because an audiological evaluation recently revealed that my daughter has a loss of hearing due to — you guessed it – perforations in the ear drums that didn’t heal completely. Sigh…

Perhaps this news can be a bit of balm to sooth the conscience of the next mother who brings her child to you for the infection du jour at the local daycare center. Reports from yet another study suggest that infections which occur early in life serve to prime children’s immune systems, lowering the risk of acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL). While it’s true that it doesn’t make multiple infections necessarily a good thing, what it does do is provide a small step toward preventing the most common childhood cancer. This is excellent news, especially since leukemia in children has been slowly increasing for reasons yet unknown.

In the study, researchers led by Patricia Buffler, PhD, of the University of California, Berkeley, retrospectively reviewed 14 studies that looked at the occurrence of ALL and social contact in children. What they found was that social exposure to other children, including that which occurs at daycare and play groups, had an effect of reducing the risk of ALL as much as 30% to 40%. I haven’t checked to see if the study has been published yet, but evidently Buffler presented the results yesterday at the Causes and Prevention of Childhood Leukemia conference in London.

This provides additional support for the findings of another large study that hit the news a few years ago, in which British researchers analyzed data collected over a 10-year period in children aged two to 14 years. They found that children who attended daycare centers on a regular basis during the first few months of life were less likely to develop ALL, with the effect less pronounced among children diagnosed between the ages of two and five years than at an older age.

So the next time that you hear a frazzled mother wonder out loud if putting her child in daycare makes her an awful person, throw her a bone. Watching a child go through yet another infection may be tough, but it is an exercise that may help that young immune system land squarely on its feet.