Childhood illness and playdate etiquette

We have all been there. You have an important meeting, some long awaited play date, exciting party, or even a family holiday. And one of the children is ill. What do you do? Do you carry on as planned? Do you cancel?

This very scenario occurred last weekend.

It was my older son’s birthday party (see post on planning a child’s birthday 80’s style). A party that, aside from the weeks of planning, had been the subject of much excited discussion between my son and daughter, and my son and his pre-school friends.

The party was scheduled for the Saturday. On the Friday morning he complained of having a sore tummy.  Based on where he was pointing, frankly, I assumed he just needed to do a poo.  So we carried on.  Twenty minutes later, sure enough he did a humongous poo.  Problem solved, or so I thought.  So off we trotted to the local shops to pick up the last few bits for his party.  He was fine.  We even had a little treat and got the bus up the road home so he could sit behind the driver and pretend to drive.  Perfect.

We got home.  I started preparing lunch while he and his brother played.  Then I heard a whimper. “Mummy, I think I am going to be sick”.  Quick, where is a bucket, a washing up bowl, anything?!?!? It turns out that I do not own either of those two things, so we went with the kitchen floor option.

After a clean up and an hour of cuddling, he eventually fell asleep.  

I transferred him to the sofa so I could keep an eye on him.  And strategically positioned a saucepan next to him.

What now?  Has he got a virus?  Is he contagious?  Maybe it is just all the sausages he ate yesterday for supper (I think the total was about five or six)?  Do I cancel the party? I did not even have the contact details for everyone coming.  How would I let them know?  

I called my husband.  We agreed to see what he was like when he woke up.

A few hours later and a much healthier little boy woke up.  He had a bit more colour in his cheeks and, yes, he was ready to watch some cBeebies now please mummy.  He was clearly on the mend.  Having watched him (admittedly rather tentatively) eat some plain pasta, and then spend an hour chasing his baby brother round the house (rather less tentatively!), we decided he was up to having his party.  But what about the other children?  Would their parents want them to come to the party of a little boy who had been vomiting on the kitchen floor less than 24 hours before?

Personally I am fairly relaxed about childhood illness.  

I have three children exposed to three different sets of children via their school and nursery.  They are constantly being exposed to various bugs.  Admittedly with my first I was much more cautious, as most first time parents are.  But as soon as your child starts nursery/childminder/school or has a sibling, you have to accept that you are less able to control the bugs they are exposed to (my second child had a constantly running nose for the first month of his life, thanks to flu season, and his big sister and her nursery chums).  And to be honest, I figure it is probably good for their immune system anyway.  

But even if you are fairly relaxed, you cannot decide for others what germs it is and is not ok for their child to be exposed to.

You do not know if they have some upcoming event of their own that they do not want to jeopardise, or are secretly pregnant, or frankly, just do not want their child to get sick.

In the end we contacted everyone we could and let them know that he had been sick and that we understood entirely if they did not want to come to the party (I wish I had a more exciting end to this story!).  Most still came, largely I am guessing because most of them are at nursery together so had been sharing the same germs all week anyway.  But a few decided either not to come or to not bring a younger sibling.  And that is absolutely fine.  

This incident, however, made me think about the most common childhood illnesses that bounce around, and the correct playdate etiquette:

Vomiting and diarrhoea

They can come together or separately.  Both are pretty grim because there is so little you can do to help except try to keep your child as comfortable as possible and hydrated.  At least as they get older you can distract them from it by curling up on a sofa with some cBeebies (a good dose of Go Jetters usually perks up my older children!). The most important thing is to make sure you all wash your hands constantly to try to avoid any of the others catching it.

Ultimately, the guidance is to keep your child away from childcare or school for at least 48 hours after the last bout of diarrhoea or vomiting.  This is definitely one illness that you need to warn other parents about if you are supposed to get together.  Personally, vomiting and diarrhea would qualify as grounds for cancelling a playdate, just in case it turns out to be the norovirus.  But at the very least you let people know, and leave them the option to cancel.  

More information on how to treat vomiting and diarrhoea is available here, including a really helpful video on symptoms and treatment (towards the bottom of the page) – how the GP managed to keep a straight face when talking about “explosive green poo” is beyond me! I am still giggling about it!

To note: If your baby has diarrhoea, it can irritate their bottom.  My daughter had a terrible diarrhoea when she was about five months old.  She has really sensitive skin and her bottom flared up as a result.  It happened so quickly I did not even realise what was happening.  It got so bad (her bottom looked like parma ham – it was raw), that I had to go to our GP to have special cream prescribed.  She was so uncomfortable, it was awful.  So I would advise you slap on the sudocrem at every opportunity to stop this from happening.

Hand foot and mouth

I am not entirely sure how, but this is one that my three seem to have managed to avoid so far (I am not just touching wood, but hugging a log as I write this!).  Hand foot and mouth is highly infectious.  Someone with hand, foot and mouth disease is most infectious from just before their symptoms start (of course…) until they are feeling better.  The infection is caused by a number of different viruses, so it’s possible to get it more than once (oh joy!).  It is pretty uncomfortable for your child and they may stop eating properly because of the discomfort created by the ulcers in their mouth.  There is no cure for it, so you have to let it run its course.

I would definitely warn the other parents if your child has hand foot and mouth, and probably just stay away from playdates.  I personally would not want a child with it to come to my house and would definitely cancel a playdate if my child had it.

For more information on symptoms, pictures of what the ulcers and spots look like, and things you can do to relieve the discomfort etc. click here.


For those of you who have not yet had the pleasure of a bout of chickenpox in your child, this manifests itself in an itchy, spotty rash.  It mainly affects children and most children will catch chickenpox at some point.  It usually clears up in a week or so, but is highly contagious and is spread (ok, I warn you this bit is really gross) via the fluid found in chickenpox blisters (like I said, ugh!) and the droplets in the coughs or sneezes of someone with the infection.  Your child will be infectious during the one or two days before the rash appears right up until all the blisters have dried out and crusted over.

It is generally not too serious, though you may need some calamine lotion to help with the itching and of course calpol (I LOVE calpol!!!) if they have a fever.  But it can be dangerous for some people, such as pregnant women, newborn babies and people with a weakened immune system.  This is why you have to be very careful about who you expose your child to when they have chickenpox (aside from the fact that other people may simply not want their child to catch chickenpox at that precise moment in time!).  Be sure that any pregnant women you see have had it already. Hopefully your child will have caught this from nursery or the childminder’s, in which case they may be a few friends in a similar boat with whom you can hang out worry free (when my eldest had it so did her best friend – we just spent a week going between each other’s houses – it was a godsend).

There will be others who just want to get it out of the way and will actively seek to spend as much time with you and your poxy child (do not panic if you spot them discreetly rubbing their child on your infected child). Thus the infamous pox parties (has anyone ever actually heard of one being held?).

You should definitely let other parents know if your child has chickenpox, and let them decide (like I say they make actually want to hang out with you!).  As a rule, I would also avoid playgrounds or other places where large groups of children will be (and potentially pregnant women with them).

For more information on chickenpox and some helpful pictures of what the spots look like click here.

Head lice

Head lice are a common problem, particularly in school children aged 4-11.  They are largely harmless, but can live in the hair for a long time if not treated.  I have been lucky, so far we have only had one bout of head lice since my daughter started school a year ago.  If your little one gets lice, my advice is go to your local pharmacy and get a comb and some lotion (the pharmacist can advise you which one s most appropriate depending on your child’s age).  If your children are anything like mine, and roll around together like lunatics, it is more than likely that their siblings will catch them too!  

Head lice are harmless but extremely annoying (and very labour intensive)!  I personally would not be worried about a child coming to my house for a playdate if they had head lice.  Head lice are spread by direct head to head contact. They climb from one person’s hair to another’s.  They cannot fly, jump or swim and are very unlikely to be spread by objects such as hats, combs and pillows, so I would have no big concerns about a playdate (especially if the children are warned not to rub heads!).  That said, if it were my child with the lice I would definitely warn the other parent, as they may not have the same attitude to lice.

For more information click here

Overall, my advice on childhood sickness etiquette would be, no matter what the ailment, if it is contagious, let the other parent(s) know and they can decide.

As for our decision to go ahead with the party, so far no one who came has shown signs of illness. I guess it must have been the darned sausages after all!

Please let us know your views on the correct etiquette, and if really want to be grossed out, look at the helpful pictures from the NHS here – extremely useful, just not great if you are squeamish like me!

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