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Most parents send a child to nursery when they are ill, according to research.
Of the 1,000 parents and 100 nursery heads questioned by nanny agency North West Childcare, the majority (86 per cent) of parents admitted to sending a child back to nursery before they had recovered from an illness.
Children often fall sick at nursery as they build up their immunity from six months old to two years. When it comes to the bugs children can pick up at nursery, the list is long. From some unidentifiable bug requiring antibiotic treatment to the usual suspects of head lice, diarrhoea, conjunctivitis, chicken pox, gastroenteritis, measles, mumps, tonsillitis, whooping cough, scarlet fever and hand, foot & mouth.
For some illnesses, nurseries require parents to take a day or two off, while other ailments may require a week. Chicken pox can demand a child be off for 10 to 20 days and an injury may keep a child bedridden for far longer.
As if normal headlice were not enough to cope with, parents now face the rise of the ‘super lice’. Undeterred by lice-terminating shampoos, the genes of bugs have mutated to make them resistant to most medical treatments. Such problems multiply if parents leave a lice-infested child at nursery.
Almost a third of parents admit to trying to cover up signs of a highly contagious eye or ear infection while others give them a dose of Calpol to 'perk them up' just before taking them to nursery and keep silent about their child’s sickness.
One nursery head teacher says: "Some parents bring in children with their eyes red and streaming and deny there is anything wrong with them. We were left to care for a young child with a huge boil on their bottom who was screaming in pain. We ask them how they would feel if someone made them go into work feeling like that."
Another nursery head says: "We’ve had many children coming in with clear symptoms of conjunctivitis and their parents denying it. They'll try to wipe the eyes with a cotton wool bud but it comes up again five minutes later. We find many parents would rather chance leaving a sick child in nursery than not turn up to work - so we become a medical nursery."
Another nursery had to contend with a case of a child with highly contagious thrush in her mouth whose parents did not let nursery staff know until three days after the illness started. All 100 nursery head teachers quizzed as part of the research, voiced their concern about a destructive trend that is putting all nursery children and their households at risk.
Susan Fruhman, former head of the Lillian Harris Day Nursery says: "Parents' attitudes can be quite irresponsible. If we do accept their ill child, it is not only other children who get sick but staff too. In the most severe of cases, this can lead to a nursery actually having to close. In previous generations, children were given the opportunity to recuperate fully before being sent back to school or nursery”.
According to the National Day Nurseries Association (NDNA), 60 per cent of mothers with children under five are working. And it is the women (76 per cent) who take the time off when a child is sick.
Almost one third of parents admit to being uncomfortable taking time off work to care for a sick child, according to the online GP service PushDoctor.co.uk, which questioned 1,000 parents in the UK.
Despite employees being legally allowed time off to care for a dependent, parents say workload pressures (57 per cent) and the ‘need to be seen working and present at work’ (31 per cent) are the main reasons for feeling uneasy about leaving work to care for their child.
Most parents (67 per cent) say they only took one day off in the last year to look after a sick child. Some 68 per cent of parents are so worried about taking unpaid time off, they tell their boss they are ill, to remove the financial loss that comes with caring for their sick child. One mum Harriet posted on netmums.com: “When an adult is unwell, they have a statutory right to time off with pay. Parents should not be forced to lie and say that it is they who are ill.”
The Government says there are no limits on how many times you can take time off work for dependents and what is ‘reasonable’ will depend on the circumstances but is normally viewed as one or two days leave. But the line between reasonable and unreasonable is blurry. If a child is frequently ill (often the case in their first two years of life) and the appropriate amount of time off to meet a nursery’s’ sick policy is taken, employers might deem it unreasonable.
Each parent can take up to four weeks of unpaid, parental leave, per child per year. In addition, most workers are paid annual holiday leave. Anything paid as compassionate leave is at the discretion of the employer.
Mum Elizabeth says “My daughter had an accident which resulted in her needing an operation to save two of her fingers, she was not quite two years old. I was made to feel guilty for asking for time off, I was forced to take it as annual leave and when I ran out of annual leave I had to go back to work or face disciplinary action. I had almost two weeks off with her but due to the extent of her injury she was still unable to go back to nursery and still needed to go back to hospital three times a week. My husband was given the extra time off paid by his employer.”
A statutory right to paid leave for employees when their child is sick may be welcomed by parents but it is not by the Government. The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills stated: “Current legal provisions already enable employees to take time off work to deal with family emergencies, and parental rights in the UK are amongst the most generous in Europe.”
With no paid leave linked to care of sick children, many parents must take a ‘holiday’ to care for a sick child or be unpaid. Caroline, a mother of two says: “If either of them is ill and the nursery won’t take them, I have to have a day off work at no pay. I still have to pay for nursery fees and I let my boss down by having yet another day off.”
To save other children and their whole families falling sick, nurseries are rightly sending ill children home. But what more can nurseries do?
Jo Baranek, the NDNA’s Early years lead adviser, says: “It’s a tough situation for nurseries because, unless a child is off sick long-term, they can’t waive the fees because they can’t offer that place to another child. Nurseries do try to help and be flexible – some may offer extra sessions for a child who has been poorly as a gesture of good will if they have space within ratios, which will allow parents to work on a different day."
Parents need a back-up plan, a fourth emergency service that may spring into action to handle breakdowns in childcare. Emergency Childcare sends a Mary Poppins-style nanny to homes within 30 minutes at the first sign of a sniffle from offspring. If a child is frequently ill and both parents work, a permanent nanny might be an option.
With no supportive boss to pay for time off spent nursing a child, new ideas may have to come from the parents themselves. Splitting the care burden between father and mother may help. Finding out early on what is acceptable from a nursery and employer could inform a parent’s strategy. While some may brave the office with the flu to save their sick day for their child, others may work from home or work additional hours to accrue extra time off. Whatever the action plan, keeping the child away from nursery could save other parents having to face the same sick child dilemma.