Nine Stress-Free Tips for Giving Your Child Medicine

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I still remember the awful taste of a thick, chalky, white medication that my pediatrician would routinely prescribe when I had strep throat as a child. Simply looking at the bottle of the banana-favored medication made me want to run and hide. Fortunately for my parents (and my health), I begrudgingly took my antibiotics after several minutes of pleading. As a nurse practitioner at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, I am familiar with the stress that parents (and kids) endure when it’s time to give medication, particularly with an unwilling child. Over the years I have learned some tricks that will help get that medication “down the hatch” both safely and effectively.

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Nine Tips for Helping a Picky Child Take Their MedicineNine Stress-Free Tips for Giving Your Child Medicine

1. Give choices. When kids feel sick, they lose their sense of control, so it’s helpful to give them choices. While taking medication is not a choice, you can give them simple options:

  • How they take it (from a syringe or a cup)
  • When they take it (before or after they get dressed)
  • Where they take it (at the kitchen table or sitting on the couch while watching TV)

Your child may prefer to take the medicine all by themselves, or may want you help. Regardless of their choice, always make sure your child is supervised.

2. Avoid choking. Be mindful of how much your child can swallow at once to avoid choking. Sometimes, a dose should be divided into smaller parts.

For infants and smaller children, always squirt medication into the lower cheek rather than the back of the throat to prevent choking. Let your baby swallow before squirting in more. Medication should always be given in an upright or seated position to prevent choking.

3. Explain why medicine helps. If your child is old enough to understand, explain why he or she needs to take the medication. I recently babysat for my 4-year-old nephew, who was on a course of antibiotics for an ear infection. When I took out the bottle of pink medication, he told me, “No, that’s yucky.” I asked him if he knew why he needed to take the medicine and he shrugged his shoulders. We talked about the medicine helping his ears to feel better so he could go back to preschool and play with his friends, which was just the ticket to get him on board with taking the yucky pink medicine.

4. Be positive. Approach the situation with a positive attitude. Don’t forget to praise children when they take their medication without a struggle. It’s important that your child realizes that taking medication is not a punishment. Never threaten to give children a “shot” if they don’t take their medication.

5. Reward your child. School-aged children can be motivated by incentives. Make your child a star chart so that each time they take their medication they get a sticker. You can decide how many stickers they need to earn to get a prize of their choice. You can also make a “treasure chest” with fun little toys and stickers so they can pick one thing after taking their medication each day.

6. Add flavoring. Before picking up your child’s prescription from the pharmacy, check to see if the pharmacist is able to add flavoring to the medication, like cherry, grape or watermelon. If possible, let your child pick the flavor. This also helps with the “control” issue.

7. Choose liquid, capsule or chewable options. Talk to your child’s doctor or pharmacist about the formulations available for a particular medication. Sometimes medications come in chewable tablets, capsules that can be opened and sprinkled over food or pills that can be cut into small pieces and easily swallowed.

8. Make taking medication fun and creative. Get creative! You will need to measure up the correct dose in a syringe or clear plastic medicine cup, but it doesn’t mean that children need to take it from that device. Perhaps they will prefer to take it from a tea set cup, a cool action hero spoon or their favorite small cup. You may also want to role-play and have your child practice giving the medicine to a favorite stuffed animal or dolly.

9. Mix your child’s meds with regular food (if possible). It’s helpful to disguise a medication’s taste by mixing it with chocolate syrup, pancake syrup, pudding, applesauce or yogurt. Instead of mixing, you can also put a small quantity of the medication on a spoon and then cover it with yogurt, chocolate sauce or a dollop of ice cream, so the first thing your child tastes is what’s on top—a yummy snack!

Some medications cannot be given during meals or with particular foods, so it’s important to ask your pharmacist or child’s doctor if there are any restrictions with particular medications. Other mixing suggestions include:

  • Follow little bits of medicine with a “chaser.” For older kids, use something sweet like juice and for infants, alternate with a minute or so on the breast or a few sips of their bottle. Only attempt this if your child’s doctor says it’s okay.
  • Alternate between medicine and something your child likes to eat or drink. For example, give your child a small volume of the medication and follow it with a ripe strawberry, chocolate morsel, spoonful of fruity yogurt or a sip of juice, and then repeat until the entire dose is finished.

Do not mix your child’s medication with a full bottle or large cup of liquid. You want to make sure that children take the entire dose of medication, and if it’s mixed in a large quantity of liquid, they will need to drink the entire thing, which may not be realistic.

Your child spit out their medicine. Now what?

We’ve all been there. You’ve squirted some medication in your toddler’s mouth and her or she immediately spits it out or vomits a few minutes later. If this happens, call your child’s doctor before giving any more or repeating a dose. Some medications can be repeated without any issue, but others can be harmful if your child gets a little extra.

When it’s time to give a dose of medication, remember these tips to make the experience easier and less stressful for you and your child.