How to Help Your Child Take Medicine By Mouth

For children, taking medicine by mouth can be difficult. But with support from their caregivers, it's a skill most children can learn and improve over time. Our experts and Certified Child Life Specialists, Natalie Sell and Katelyn Zilles, created this resource to talk about the different techniques caregivers can use to help teach children to take medicine by mouth. 

When can kids learn how to take medicine by mouth?

Just like most developmental milestones, the best age to learn this skill is different for each child. Kids should be at least 4 years old and seem cooperative and motivated to learn new skills. If your child has a swallowing dysfunction or needs psychological intervention to help them swallow the medicine, talk to their primary care provider about special considerations that may be important to know before learning this skill. The best time to practice is when your child is in a place that is:

  • Familiar
  • Low-pressure
  • Safe
  • Not filled with distractions

Tips for Teaching Your Kids to Take Medicine

Here are some strategies for parents and caregivers to make swallowing medicine easier for kids: 

  • Be intentional when you practice with your child. Practice no more than 5-10 minutes a day for about 2 weeks. It’s important for your child not to associate this skill with bad feelings. The best time to practice is usually not when your child is in the hospital. If your child does need to learn this new skill while in the hospital, it will likely be more difficult but not necessarily impossible! 
  • Choose a time that allows it to be a good experience. If your child is already upset, practicing this skill won't be productive. If your child becomes upset while practicing – take a break, do a familiar or fun activity, and then try again when your child is no longer upset.
  • Focus on staying positive. Children often need time and practice before they can complete a task. As the caregiver, model the behavior you want to see by staying positive and supportive. These emotions may influence your child’s sense of self and boost their confidence.
  • Praise your child for any positive progress. Even if they are not successful in swallowing the medicine, find another action or choice your child made and praise that. For example, you may want to tell them how proud you are that they can sit calmly to practice this skill.
  • Use play to help your child practice. They can pretend to “give medicine” to a doll, stuffed animal, or even you. This will support your child’s sense of independence and control. It can also show any misunderstandings, questions or worries your child might have but can’t communicate to you. Knowing these concerns can help you improve the practice and help them be successful.
  • Give realistic choices to your child. While taking their medicine is not a choice – they can choose what they want to drink before or after, which special cup to drink from, or if they want to hold someone’s hand.
  • Try the scaffolding method. Scaffolding is when you use candies smaller than the pill to practice taking their medicine. Help your child “take” a small-sized candy like a mini M&M® (or part of candy) until they are successful. Then increase the size of the candy (for example, to something like a Tic Tac®) and help them successfully “take” that size. Keep increasing the size of the candy over time until they can successfully swallow a piece of candy that is the same size as the medicine they need to take. It’s important to note that you will need time to use scaffolding. You can’t rush their progress, so only use this if you have time to work up to a candy the size of their medicine.

What to Avoid

Try not to sneak the medicine into your child’s food or drinks. If they figure this out, it may break their trust. We recommend praise over prizes so that children learn the benefit of this skill, rather than doing it for a prize at the end (which is called “intrinsic motivation”) – an important phase of child development. Be careful not to give constant incentives or prizes (like extra screen time), especially if your child will need to take medication for a long time.

How to Help Medicine Taste Better

Sometimes the medicine your child must take tastes bad or bitter, which can prevent them from swallowing. There are ways to hide the flavor of some medicine, but you must make sure you are doing this safely. Always talk to your child’s doctor before crushing any medication to mix it with food or a drink. Other ways to help hide the bad taste of medicine can include:

  • Have your child suck on a popsicle right before taking the medicine. 
  • Try mixing the medicine with a flavoring.
    • Depending on the medicine, some mixes mask the flavor better than others. Include your child in the conversation about what flavors to choose or the actual process of mixing the flavors. Not only do they feel included and in control over the flavor choice, this also lets them know that they are taking medication and we are not tricking them into taking medicine. Ask your child’s doctor or pharmacist for more information about mixing flavors.
  • Give your child a spoonful of flavored syrup, Nutella®, pudding, etc. – anything they love the taste of – right before and after they take their medicine.
  • Have your child hold their nose closed while they take their medicine.

Instructions for Helping Your Child Swallow Medicine

To swallow a pill, kids should:

  1. Sit up straight with their head centered and looking forward.
  2. Tilt their head slightly backward (or forward, if it’s a capsule). For most medications, have your child tilt their head back only a little bit. Leaning too far back can make it harder to swallow. However, if the pill is a capsule, usually it’s easier for them to swallow it when their head it tipped slightly forward. This is because capsules float, so if their head is tipped back, the pill will float to the front of their mouth.
  3. Take a few sips of water to "practice" swallowing – this reminds them that they can do this!
  4. If helpful, have them eat a spoonful of their favorite syrup, pudding or spread to coat their mouth and reduce the bad taste.
  5. Put the pill on their tongue and drink the water/have another spoonful of syrup. Sometimes drinking the water through a straw can help.

Don’t forget to praise your child (and yourself)! We know practicing this skill can sometimes be hard for the child and their caregiver!

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