Child Care and Head Lice

Published on Monday, 05 December 2016
Last updated on Friday, 04 January 2019

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Head lice - A fact of life!

For most parents there is something inherently icky about the thought of head lice. However, it is worth remembering that head lice have been around for almost as long as humans and they are a natural, if somewhat creepy, fact of the world we live in!

Kids in child care are very susceptible to head lice because they are physically close to each other for almost all the activities they participate in. Head lice are not fussy and are equally happy in clean or dirty hair; you can catch head lice no matter what your age, ethnicity, hair colour or hair type. This means that all kids in child care are at risk when there is an outbreak in a centre.

There are a few popular myths about head lice, including the idea that you should sterilize and bag up all your linen and soft toys after an outbreak and you can catch lice from sharing hats and headrests.

However, head lice die from dehydration within 6-24 hours of being removed from a human head and research has shown that sharing a hat with someone who has head lice does not increase your chances of getting lice. In addition, head lice cannot jump from one person to the head of another. They are spread only through direct head-to-head contact.

Head lice and child care

Most child care centres have policies on head lice. A typical policy will outline the roles, responsibilities and expectations that child care providers and parents have in the treatment and prevention of head lice. Ask to see your centre's policy so that you are familiar with the process if your child ever does come down with the dreaded critters.

If you detect lice in your child's hair, and were not advised about a breakout in their child care centre, it is worth telling the centre as soon as possible as head lice rarely occur on an isolated basis. Most centres have a policy of not identifying children who have lice in a centre, so you shouldn't worry about your child being embarrassed.

The good news for parents is that kids with head lice do not need to be sent home immediately on detection of the lice, and do not have to stay home from their child care centre, as long as they are effectively treated before their next day in care.

Effective treatment means that all the lice are dead and this can be achieved by the conditioner and comb technique or through using a chemical treatment.

Conditioner and comb technique

This is a very effective way of detecting and treating head lice however you will need to continue treatment every day for about ten days to ensure you remove all the lice from your child's hair. The conditioner works by stunning the lice for a few minutes so they stay still enough to be combed out. If you want to give this technique a go follow the steps outlined below:

  1. Untangle your child's hair with an ordinary comb.
  2. Apply a generous amount of conditioner to your child's hair covering the entire scalp from roots to tips.  You can use any conditioner, however, a white product will make it easier to see the nits.
  3. Use your ordinary comb to distribute the conditioner evenly through your child's hair and divide the hair into four or more sections using hair ties.
  4. Change to a head lice comb.
  5. Pick up a section of hair near the back of your child's head. Place the teeth of the comb against your child's scalp and comb the hair from the roots through to the tips.
  6. Use a tissue or towel to wipe the teeth of the comb clean after each brush stroke and check for head lice and eggs.
  7. Comb each section of your child's hair at least twice until you have done the whole head. If your comb becomes clogged up use an old toothbrush to clear the teeth.
  8. Keep combing until all the conditioner has gone.
  9. Repeat the conditioning and combing daily until you find no head lice for ten consecutive days. It is important to continue for ten days to make sure you remove all the adult lice as well as any lice that hatch, before they get a chance to reproduce.

Chemical treatments

If you decide to opt for a chemical treatment make sure you choose one that is specifically for head lice. It would probably be worth a trip to the pharmacy to ensure you use something that meets all recommended safety standards. Remember, that you are using what effectively amounts to a pesticide on your child's head, so it is important to find the right product and to closely follow the usage directions.

None of the chemical treatments available on the market will kill the eggs so it is essential to reapply the treatment one week later to make sure you kill any young lice that hatch after the first treatment.

You could use the conditioner and combing technique between treatments to help remove the lice.

It is important to check the effectiveness of the product you use after the first treatment as some lice are resistant to some chemical treatments. To check whether a product has been successful use a head lice comb to comb your child's hair from roots to tips. Repeat until all the hair has been combed through at least twice. Wipe the comb on a tissue after each stroke and check the lice for movement, if all the lice are dead then the treatment has been successful, however if you see movement the treatment hasn't been effective and you will have to try a product with a different active ingredient.

Preventing head lice

It's important to remember that head lice are irritating but ultimately harmless. By encouraging your child to follow some of the ideas listed below you may reduce the likelihood of your little one catching head lice:

  • Avoid sharing hair brushes, combs, hats and fancy dress wigs
  • Avoid direct head-to-head contact
  • Discourage your child from playing with other people's hair
  • Keep long hair tied up or plaited
  • Checking your child's hair on a weekly basis

Remember that these suggestions should not get in the way of ensuring your child is able to have fun in their child care centre.

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