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This population-based study investigated prospectively collected absence episodes to describe patterns and rates of absences for illness and other reasons in two types of formal childcare.Centre day care and family day care homes were selected at random from licensing lists. All centres (n = 11) and 95% of family day care caregivers (n = 130) agreed to participate. The results are based on absence information from carers and on questionnaires to the parents of participating children (n = 846).The major reason for absence was respiratory illness with 48% of all children absent at least once during the year with some form of respiratory illness. Although the absence rate for children in centre care was higher than that in family care (3.34 episodes per 52 child-weeks compared with 2.41), the difference was not statistically significant.Investigating patterns of absences from childcare allows a better understanding of needs in childcare. The major reason for absence for illness was respiratory illness.