Part of being a parent means dealing with cycles of shared illness. Here’s how I cope when my kids and I are sick.
In the pharmacy, I push my runny-nosed 3-year-old in her stroller, looking for some kind of medication to help her sleep through the night.
I cross paths mid-aisle with another mom corralling two kids while she coughs into her sleeve. We nod and pass like ships in the night.
If you’re a parent who’s just entered the world of day care, welcome. I see you.
Day care colds, the flu, and other maladies can be overlapping and unrelenting for months and can take out your whole family. Many friends and work colleagues are sympathetic, but you don’t truly understand how much extra work and stress it is until you’re in the thick of it.
When my first child started day care, gastroenteritis hit within days. He threw up everywhere and had to stay home. For the next 2 days, my partner and I went about our business as usual with upset stomachs and diarrhea.
My mom-friend had a similar run-in with day care gastro recently. Her 1-year-old threw up in their bed so many times they ran out of blankets and had what she called “a horrible night.”
This is typical for many parents, but that doesn’t make it fun.
There’s something about day care illnesses that seems absurdly unfair. After all, you started day care thinking you could get a break. Because you desperately needed to offload some stress — not because you were hungry for more.
A series of respiratory infections hits my family every few months. All four of us catch several in a row and spend weeks hacking our lungs out. Last fall was particularly bad — both of my kids had just started at a new day care.
Starting day care can be the most discouraging time, but you should know that it gets better fast for many people.
A recent study published in the British Medical Journal found that, predictably, respiratory infections rocketed among families just starting day care. But the rate of infections also dropped off quickly for those families over time.
The day care cold lore spreads as quickly as the infections themselves. So if you’re not already acquainted with the common illnesses, you will be soon.
Hand, foot, and mouth disease sounds serious, but it’s not for most kids. It’s super common, very contagious, and presents as uncomfortable little sores around the hands, feet, and in the mouth.
Pinworms are a strong competitor for the grossest common day care malady. These microscopic parasites live in your colon by day, then cause itching at night when they emerge to mate and lay eggs on the skin around your anus. Not fun, but easy to cure with medication.
Pink eye is another favorite. Contrary to popular belief, it’s not just caused by someone farting on your pillow (though that happens with kids). Common cold viruses can also cause it if the virus comes into contact with your eye.
But for most people, the months-long drag of day care flu and infections like RSV is the heaviest burden.
These respiratory infections are rampant at day care. In addition to the runny noses, coughing, sore throats, and general malaise they cause, respiratory infections
It can really help to have your supplies, routines, and mindset ready to take on day care colds and flu whenever they rear their ugly heads.
1. Develop your decision tree
When your child presents with a symptom, it’s tough to know what to do in the moment.
If you’re process-oriented like me, it might help to jot down a few cut-and-dried decisions and stick them on the fridge.
Our decision tree goes something like this:
- Take temperature. If fever, then stay home for at least 24 hours. If the fever lasts longer than 3 full days, see a doctor.
- If vomiting, keep home for at least 24 hours.
- If there’s no fever or vomiting but they have other symptoms, then do a test for COVID-19. If positive, then keep home and isolate.
- If other worrying symptoms present, research them and seek help accordingly.
This routine comes from consulting my day care, healthcare professionals, and Google and feeling out what felt right over time.
2. Deprioritize and delegate to de-stress
Parenting is an ongoing exercise in letting go of your expectations, but sick days are the ultimate test.
If you’ve decided that you’ll need to stay at home with your child, you’ve already overcome the biggest hurdle. Because to do this, you must let go of everything you expected to get done today.
Take a few minutes in the morning of a sick day to offload as much stress as possible so you can be present with your little one.
- Cancel or postpone appointments, calls, and other plans.
- Delegate work to someone else or extend your deadlines.
- Ask for help at work and around the house, if you can.
Everybody’s circumstance is different, so you might not be able to drop everything, but put on hold what you can.
It’s stressful for you and your sick child if you’re preoccupied with work while you’re home with them.
3. Don’t fear the fever
It’s tempting to panic when your little one has a high temperature.
But it’s very unlikely that the raised temperature itself will hurt them. The fever is actually helping your child’s immune system fight the infection.
Also, the number on the thermometer doesn’t indicate how serious their illness is. To assess that, look at your child’s other symptoms and general condition.
If they seem in poor condition, contact a healthcare professional, even if they don’t have a fever.
4. Have a sickness kit ready
Here are the tools I’ve learned to keep stocked in case of sick days:
- a couple of complete changes of clean sheets, including an extra waterproof mattress protector — so you can strip the sheets in the night after a barf or night sweats and go back to sleep comfortably.
- medication to help with discomfort, such as ibuprofen and acetaminophen for kids
- cold and flu medication for any adults in the household
- an extra pillow for kids to prop up their heads if they have congestion
- a thermometer and plastic disposable thermometer covers
- petroleum jelly to put on the thermometer if you’re checking rectal temperature
- a nasal aspirator, aka “snot sucker”
- testing kits — use these to rule out COVID-19
5. Mood and comfort matter
During one of my many calls to our local medical helpline, a nurse told me that one of the most important ways to treat a sick kid is to help them feel comfortable. That’s it.
It blew my mind because I had always thought “treatment” was about helping reduce the infection. But what the nurse told me underscored that comfort and well-being are important aspects of health.
So if you’re at a loss about how to provide more care, consider what else you can do to make your child feel cozy and cared for.
I try to treat my kids extra slow and gentle when they’re sick.
Stroke their hair. Wrap them up in a blanket. Bring them a stuffed animal to help them get better. Bring them ginger ale or a popsicle to soothe them. Watch their favorite show beside them.
6. Try the placebo effect
The placebo effect may be
I like to give my kids pretend “pills” (ahem, raisins) to help them feel better. Or you could give them applesauce, juice, or an electrolyte drink as pretend liquid “medicine.”
I try to reinforce the placebo effect by telling my kids in a super calming, professional voice, “The doctor told me to give you three of these pills to help you feel better.”
It soothes them instantly, and they love the pretend play.
7. Your well-being matters, too
When you’re relaxed, comfortable, and your basic needs are taken care of, you’re much better at helping your kids.
So if you’re feeling sick or exhausted, make sure to prioritize your own self-care, too, and consider asking for help while you recover.
Having a sick kid is an inevitable part of day care. It’s rough, especially when you first start. But know that, in many cases, cold and flu infections aren’t harmful to your child in the long term.
The more I lean into child care on sick days — by dropping unessential work and getting cozy on the couch with my kid — the more I can be present and give them the level of care they deserve.
And maybe cut yourself a break and order in. Pizza and a movie with your kid could be just what you need.