How to Get Your Child to Take Medicine
From getting that liquid down, to learning to swallow pills & more
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“Help me help you.”
This line from the movie Jerry Maguire perfectly sums up the frustration we all feel when we’re trying to give our kids medicine, doesn’t it?
I know that you’re sick and feel terrible…I get it…but this is the stuff that will make you feel better, so please take it!
As a pediatrician and a dad, I know this frustration well. Not only do I occasionally have this challenge with my own kids, I also get dozens of phonecalls from parents having the same battles with theirs. I know that the pain is real—for everyone involved!
So below I’ve brought together all the very best tips and tricks for getting your kids to take medicine, including many that you won’t find elsewhere. We start with tips specifically for how to take liquid medication, how to take eyedrops and eye ointment, and how to take pills. I’ll also cover my favorite way to teach your child how to swallow pills, plus some general tips that will be useful no matter what type of medicine you’re giving.
Check it all out below & don’t forget to share this article if you’ve found it helpful!
HOW TO TAKE LIQUID MEDICINE
Giving liquid medicine is one of the least celebrated trials of parenting. Liquids often taste bad and are easily spat out—a pretty terrible combination. Use these tips to increase your odds of success:
Coat the tongue BEFOREHAND
Many people will tell you to give your child a chaser of something tasty after they swallow their medicine. And this is good advice—swallowing juice or something else your child likes can wash away a bad aftertaste. But it doesn’t help with the taste of the medicine while your child is taking it, which is usually the bigger obstacle.
To make the flavor of a bad-tasting medicine less noticeable, give your child something thick and syrupy BEFORE you give the medicine. Give something like chocolate syrup or maple syrup (or honey if your child is over 12 months old) and some of the gooey, tasty stuff might still coat the tongue when you give the medicine, masking some of its flavor.
All kinds of things taste better cold (think: coconut water, chocolate milk, or the glass of white wine you’ll need after you give your kid medicine!).
Liquid medicine is no different. Keep it in the fridge or pour it over some crushed ice to ensure that it tastes as good as possible. Amoxicillin Italian ice!
Numb the taste with cold
While making the medicine cold might make it taste better, cooling down your child’s taste buds can also help to dull the perception of flavor altogether.
Have your child suck on a wet ice cube for a few moments or take a sip of something cold before taking the medicine. The result might be that the medicine doesn’t taste quite so bad.
Medication art project
Giving your child some say in how the medicine is taken can go a long way in making it easier to give (see the General Tips below).
One way you can do that—and make taking medicine more fun—is to add a drop of food coloring of your child’s choice. This is especially effective if the medication is white. It’s not the most natural of options, but it is one way to give your child choice and a feeling of control in the matter.
Get the right flavor
Not only can most pharmacies add flavor to liquid medication, they can turn it into more than just your typical cherry or grape. I’m talking tasty flavors like lemon, watermelon, even root beer and piña colada.
Some flavors mix with certain medications’ natural flavors better than others. If your child doesn’t have a favorite, ask your pharmacist whether there is any particular flavor that would work best with the medicine your child needs to take.
Mixing—do it right
“Mix the medicine with food or a drink” is probably the most commonly offered advice to help kids take yucky medicine. But there are a few things you need to know.
First, there are certain food/medicine combinations that can change the effectiveness of the medication, so you’ll want to find out if this is true for your child’s medicine. My pharmacist friends may hate me for saying this, but calling your local pharmacist will usually get you a better answer to this question than calling your pediatrician.
Next, you’ve got to make a mixture that ends up being tasty. Making medicine-flavored slop defeats the purpose if it turns out to be gross. Some people recommend using applesauce or yogurt.
My favorite medicine-mixer is ice cream. Most kids’ medicine has a bubblegum or cherry/strawberry flavor—perfect for adding to a small scoop of vanilla ice cream. Plus, mixing it with ice cream gives you the benefit of improving the taste by chilling the medicine, as well as cooling off and dulling the tastebuds.
There is one flaw when it comes to mixing with food or a drink—you need to make sure of is that your child eats or drinks the whole mixture. If he doesn’t, he might not have taken all of the dose—and the only thing worse than not getting any medicine into your child is not getting enough and having to go back for a new round of antibiotics.
Aim wisely (key for babies—but important for older kids, too!)
It’s pretty soul-crushing when you finally get the medicine into your child’s mouth, only to see it gagged on and spat out.
There’s a trick to prevent this, and it’s all in how you aim: Squirt along the lower part of the cheek, toward the back corner of the mouth. This bypasses most of the tastebuds. Use small, slow squirts and it will be easier to swallow than if you push the whole dose in at once.
Also, make sure your child is upright to prevent her from choking. Sitting in someone’s arms or in a highchair will do the trick.
HOW TO TAKE EYEDROPS & EYE OINTMENT
I often feel pretty bad on the inside when I tell parents that they have to give eyedrops or eye ointment to their child. I know that I’m essentially prescribing a week of wrestling at home. That’s why I offer parents these tips in hopes of making their lives a bit easier:
For ointment, squeeze & dangle
When applying ointment to your child’s eye, the natural inclination is to squeeze as you move across the eye. But this never works—barely anything comes out until you’re already two-thirds of the way across, and when it does it usually curls up toward the tube.
Instead, squeeze out a strip of ointment and let it dangle from the tube. Then, pull down on your child’s lower eyelid as best you can & drape the dangling strip across the eye. The ointment is going to get everywhere, and that’s actually good—it’ll ensure that the medicine covers all of the infected area.
Eyedrop Tip #1: Warm it up
Cold drops sting when they hit the eye. Warming the bottle in your hand for a minute or two before applying the drops will make it a more comfortable experience for your child.
Eyedrop Tip #2: Down on the corner
The best way to administer eyedrops is to have them land right on the eye or under the eyelid. Unfortunately, you might only get this to happen with the very first drop you ever do. After that, your kid’s going to know what’s coming.
If you can’t get the drops in perfectly because your child is squeezing his eyes shut tight, then try this: Have your child lie down on his back. Then, put 1-2 drops down at the inner corner of the eye (the one near the nose). When he opens his eyes (he needs to sometime, right?), some of the drops will run in and get where they need to be.
What happens if he rubs his eyes to rub the drops away? Well, most eyedrops are fairly thick and viscous, so some of the medicine might actually get in—not an ideal amount, but possibly just enough.
4. Eyedrop Tip #3: Sleepytime dosing
This last eyedrop tip might seem to be the craziest, but I’ve had plenty of parents tell me that it works:
Put the eyedrops in when your child is asleep.
The trick here is to put the drop in that inner corner of the eye (again, the one near the nose), then gently pull down on the lower eyelid. The result is that the drop runs under the lid, right where it needs to be.
The nighttime dose is the most obvious time to try this. If your child naps, then the other dose or doses are also accounted for. But if your child no longer naps, then you’ll have to get the morning dose in before she wakes up in the morning.
This approach would never have worked with my kids when they were little—they were those kids that would wake up if you stepped on a creaky floorboard in the hallway. But now that they’re older, they could sleep through an atomic bomb, so I can actually see this working.
Basically, the success of this method rests on how deep of a sleeper your child is. But if you’ve had a hard time with drops and are at wit’s end, you just might want to give it a shot.
HOW TO TAKE PILLS
Many parents can’t wait to teach their kids to swallow pills. After all, they’re theoretically easier to take than liquid medicine. They don’t coat as much of the tongue, so even if they taste bad it doesn’t seem so terrible. Plus, you don’t have to worry about spitting out part of the dose—it’s all or nothing. Still, even if your child can take pills, there’s a difference between “able to” and “willing to.”
Follow these tips to make pills go down more easily:
Teaching your child how to swallow pills—the ‘Float Method’
If you think about how most people try to swallow a pill, they put it on the tongue, take a sip of liquid, then just…swallow.
The problem is that when you’re nervous about swallowing the pill—like most kids are—being nervous decreases saliva and causes your tongue to dry. So when you try to swallow the pill, it gets stuck on your tongue. Then you try again to push it back, but now there’s no liquid left in your mouth, the pill sticks even more, now you’re gagging…and it’s a total mess.
So how to avoid all of this and teach your child to swallow pills? I highly recommend this “Float Method,” which I learned from a mom who taught her autistic son with this approach.
Have your child put the pill in her mouth, then take a sip of her favorite drink. Next, instead of immediately trying to swallow, tell her to swish her tongue around and try to make the pill float in the liquid in her mouth—and then, once it’s floating, then swallow.
By making the pill float in the liquid first, you avoid the pill getting stuck on the tongue and all the gagging and panic that would ensue—and you’re left with a kid who now knows how to swallow pills!
Try it with a thick drink
If your child is still skeeved out by the feeling of a pill going down, use something thick to drink instead of water. Milk or a smoothie work well. The thicker texture of the drink masks the sensation of the pill going down.
Crushed or open, then stirred
If your child can’t swallow the pill and liquid isn’t an option, then sometimes mixing the pill with a small spoonful of something (again, yogurt, applesauce, and chocolate syrup are often winners) can work.
How do you “mix” a pill into food?
Most tablets can be crushed, and some capsules can be opened and the contents mixed into something. (How do you tell the difference? A tablet is a hard, chalky pill; a capsule usually has a plastic-like coating.) Some capsules, however, are meant to be delayed-release and shouldn’t be opened. Check with your pharmacist to see if this is okay first.
GENERAL TIPS FOR ALL TYPES OF MEDICINE
Even with the above approaches, you might still find that your kid is pretty resistant to taking medicine. The following tips can help, no matter what type of medicine your child needs to take:
Avoid vomiting by getting it done early
Many kids vomit after taking medicine, nullifying all your hard work (and theirs). What you might not know is that you increase the odds of the medicine being puked back up the longer your child cries before taking it.
Crying hard causes swelling in the nose and throat, making it more likely that your child will gag. It also produces a ton of mucus, most of which gets swallowed—making it even easier for your child to gag, plus upsetting her stomach in the process.
To avoid all of this, try not to let negotiations last too long after your child starts crying. Once the tears start flowing, pick your approach and move forward.
Everyone likes a prize
One of the most commonly recommended tips is to offer your child a small reward (let’s not call it a “bribe!”) for taking the medicine. This could be something small and immediate—a sticker, a treat of some sort—that’s given with each dose. Or, you might use a reward chart with a check or sticker marking each dose, ultimately leading to a bigger prize.
On the one hand, there is the philosophy that you don’t want to reward kids for doing things that simply have to get done. For example, there’s an argument that giving kids an allowance for folding clothes and doing chores only results in adults who hate chores because you don’t get a prize for doing them once you’re all grown up.
However, taking the medicine—especially if it’s a prescription—really has to get done. In fact, missing doses can make some infections get much worse. Plus, unlike folding laundry or other activities that will be lifelong required chores (ugh), a course of medicine is usually pretty short-lived. So, giving a reward for a short amount of time probably isn’t so terrible.
Let your child be in charge (sort of)
Part of kids’ problem with taking medicine is that someone else is making them do it. They can feel pretty powerless in the matter, and that’s a feeling that no one likes, even adults.
The solution is to give them some choice. “Do you want to take it here in the living room or upstairs in your room?” “Do you want it sitting in this chair or standing in the kitchen?” “Take it before bath or after bath?” “Do you want it in a cup or in the syringe?”
Notice how the questions each only give two choices. Giving options gives your kid some power, but limiting the options still keeps you in charge.
Change the presentation
What sounds better—a massage in your child’s playroom or a massage on the beach in the Caribbean? In both cases, you’re getting a massage, but I’m willing to bet that the second option sounds a whole lot more appealing.
Sometimes changing the presentation can make a world of difference.
Instead of giving the medicine in a syringe, put it in a plastic teacup. Or maybe you can get yourself a drink, too, and “cheers” your cups together. For babies who spit out medication given by syringe, sometimes they’ll take it if it’s given from a spoon because they think it’s food.
With all of these options, though, make sure that you measure out the right dose with the syringe first. Even teaspoons aren’t always accurate, so be sure to always use the syringe to measure, then squirt into your child’s preferred delivery method.
Be positive from the start…
Sometimes when I’m about to examine a young child in my office, the parent will say something like: “He’s not going to hurt you,” or “Don’t be scared.”
They’re trying to reassure their child, but all they’ve really done is reinforced or even introduced the idea that I’m about to do something scary. The result is almost always that the child is more frightened of the exam, rather than more comfortable.
How we frame experiences to our children has a strong influence on how they interpret the experience.
While acting positive when you’re giving your child medicine won’t ensure that they’ll take it happily, if you go in with anxious hesitation you can almost guarantee that your child will pick up on your emotions.
…yet be honest
Lying about the medicine tasting “like candy” or saying something else that you know is untrue doesn’t help.
At best, you might get the first dose in—but then you’re left with a child who doesn’t trust what you say and has a negative experience that will only make giving later doses even harder.
Sometimes you’ve just gotta hold—so here’s how
Medicine is important, but your kid doesn’t know that.
Untreated strep can lead to rheumatic fever, which can damage the heart, joints, and nervous system. Untreated pneumonia can get serious really quickly.
Sometimes, well, you’ve just got to hold your child. No one loves to do it, but I can promise you that it’s not going to damage your parent-child relationship. After all, you’ve ideally got a lot more time for showing love outside of a couple of minutes twice a day over a seven- or ten-day course of medicine.
If you’ve got to hold, the simplest way is to have two adults involved—one holds, the other gives the medicine. But I know that this can’t always happen, plus it’s still not always easy to do.
The next easiest way? Wrap your child in a blanket. Not only does it not feel as bad as physically sitting on top of your child and pinning him down, it can also be done if you’re on your own and don’t have another adult around to help.
YOU’RE NOT ALONE
Sometimes it can feel like your child might be the most difficult kid on the planet.
Well, after taking care of kids for nearly a decade, I can tell you that you’re not alone. I can also tell you that more often than not, in the end, the medicine gets down somehow.
I hope that at least one of the many tips and techniques we just covered turns out to be the magic one that makes this whole process easier for you and your family. If so, please share this article with your friends so that they can find their own magic approach, too.