The relationship between daycare/preschool (‘daycare’) attendance and the risk of acute lymphoblastic leukaemia was evaluated in the Northern California Childhood Leukaemia Study. Incident cases (age 1–14 years) were rapidly ascertained during 1995–1999. Population-based controls were randomly selected from the California birth registry, individually matched on date of birth, gender, race, Hispanicity, and residence, resulting in a total of 140 case–controls pairs. Fewer cases (n=92, 66%) attended daycare than controls (n=103, 74%). Children who had more total child–hours had a significantly reduced risk of ALL. The odds ratio associated with each thousand child–hours was 0.991 (95% confidence interval (CI): 0.984–0.999), which means that a child with 50 thousand child–hours (who may have, for example, attended a daycare with 15 other children, 25 h per week, for a total duration of 30.65 months) would have an odds ratio of (0.991)50=0.64 (95% CI: 0.45, 0.95), compared to children who never attended daycare. Besides, controls started daycare at a younger age, attended daycare for longer duration, remained in daycare for more hours, and were exposed to more children at each daycare. These findings support the hypothesis that delayed exposure to common infections plays an important role in the aetiology of childhood acute lymphoblastic leukaemia, and suggest that extensive contact with other children in a daycare setting is associated with a reduced risk of acute lymphoblastic leukaemia.