It happens every. Single. Year. As soon as kids are back in school and day care after summer break, the sniffles start. At first, they sound innocent enough; then, you hear a little cough or two. And finally, just as the weather starts to turn really chilly, everyone in your household is showing full-on flu symptoms.
Even if you’re careful about washing your hands and making (read: forcing) your kids to wash theirs, sickness can still spread like wildfire when school is in session, notes Dr. Wendy Sue Swanson, a pediatrician in Seattle.
“Germs are all around, and that’s a normal part of toddlerhood and childhood as children play, eat together, share snot and share fun,” Swanson tells SheKnows. “Most children get around six to 10 colds each year, and many of them are during the school year months, with October to May being most common.”
And while you can’t prevent school year sickness entirely, you can definitely take simple steps to keep everyone in your house in fine form — especially during school year primetime months. We spoke with top pediatricians for their tips on how to do just that.
More: 15 Must-Haves to Keep Kids Healthy During the Back-to-School Germfest
1. Look into your day care’s or preschool’s policies
Toddlers and preschoolers might not be the best at practicing clean hygiene habits yet. But it’s up to the parents to do some due diligence to make sure day care is a healthy environment for them to be in to avoid constant sickness, says Dr. Jill Creighton, medical director of ambulatory primary care pediatrics at Stony Brook University Hospital.
“It’s important to confirm your kids are attending a licensed day care that has been inspected and verified by governing agencies,” Creighton tells SheKnows. “Look for somewhere with a small number of kids per classroom and a smaller number of kids in total at the center if possible. Review their supervision ratio — staff-to-child — since healthy habits, like not sharing drinks and sippy cups, will be enforced more easily if children are correctly supervised.”
2. Take the sick policy seriously
You hate it when another mom sends their kid to school sick, right? Don’t be that parent. “Review the school’s sick policy and make sure the school adheres to it,” Creighton says. Then note that the same rules apply to everyone. “Keep your own child home in adherence to the policy too.”
Swanson agrees. “There is likely no way to avoid all sharing of common colds and infections, but prioritizing keeping sick children home is a huge one,” she adds. “It takes a community effort.”
Not sure if your kid is well enough for school? Her recommendation is to keep them home until a cough or runny nose is under control. And in the case of stomach bugs, don’t return them to school for at least 24 hours after the last episode of vomiting or diarrhea.
3. Wash those hands as soon as you get in the door from school
Get in the habit of having your kids wash their hands as soon as they walk in the door from the park, band practice and especially school. “Always wash everyone’s hands when you return from outside your house,” Creighton recommends. “And of course, make sure your kids wash their hands after using the bathroom to the length of the ‘Happy Birthday’ song. Remember, it’s longer than you’d think!”
More: What Your Child’s Teacher Wishes You’d Do Before School Starts
4. Avoid sneezing into hands
How many times have you had to wipe snot off your kid’s hand after a sneeze? Let’s avoid that this year, shall we? “Teach your kids the elbow cough instead,” Dr. Tanya Altmann, a pediatrician in Calabasas, California, tells SheKnows. “Try to tell kids to cough and sneeze into their elbow and not their hands. It helps prevent the spread of germs by touch.”
Also, teach them to avoid touching their face and eyes as often as possible. That should go a long way to prevent the spread of germs.
5. Disinfect those hot spots
“Homework isn’t the only thing your kids are bringing home from school. All those germs end up at home on doorknobs, light switches, tables and toys. So when kids get sick, it’s like a domino effect,” Altmann notes. She says that’s why it’s important for the whole family to be diligent about wiping down and disinfecting all commonly touched surfaces. “Use a disinfectant approved to kill cold and flu viruses to wipe the surfaces touched most frequently that we often forget about, like doorknobs, light switches, faucets and especially toys.”
She also says you can send your kids back to school with a few canisters of disinfecting wipes for teachers to use on classroom hot spots too.
6. Take care of yourself
It’s unfortunately common for parents to end up with a few of those sniffles your kids bring home, Swanson says. “Catching colds is often the plight of those of us with young children,” she says. “It’s tough to manage to keep a job and keep a family running all the while dealing with your own infections. Prioritizing rest and sleep, good handwashing and staying up on seasonal vaccines like the flu shot are great ways to decrease the likelihood of burdensome or even serious infections and missing days of work.”
More: These Are the Vaccines Your Kids Need Before Going Back to School
Self-care is talked about all the time these days. (We know; we know!) But don’t overlook it — even when things get busy, adds Altmann. “It seems so obvious, but eating right, getting some exercise — even if it’s just a little cardio while vacuuming or getting groceries from the car —and getting plenty of sleep can help boost your body’s ability to fight the effects of colds and flu,” she says.
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