If your child is refusing to take their medication when they’re sick, you’re not alone — it is very common for children of all ages. Their refusal may be due to taste, fear of swallowing pills or even the desire to have control of something when sick at home or at the hospital.
But of course, it’s essential for kids to take their prescribed medications so their bodies can get better.
Fortunately, the professionally trained child life specialists at The Cherese Mari Lauhere Child Life Department at CHOC can help. They are dedicated to helping normalize the healthcare experience for kids. They help kids and their families prepare for surgeries, provide education and support, incorporate therapeutic medical play and more.
Here, in honor of March’s Child Life Month, Christy Campo, clinical educator, and Lauren Schwarz and Shayli Anderson, child life specialists, offer seven practical strategies to parents to help their kids take their necessary medications.
There may be some different ways you can “fool the tongue” when giving your child their medication. Ask your doctor and pharmacist to see if they can prescribe a better-tasting medication, flavor liquid medicine or use flavored gel caps for pills.
In addition, ask your doctor or pharmacist if your child’s medications can be crushed or mixed with food. With liquid medicine or crushed pills, mix them with something tasty like chocolate syrup, pudding, yogurt, apple sauce or a smoothie or milkshake. Just be sure that the mix is a small enough amount for your child to finish and receive their entire dose.
Another “fooling the tongue” strategy is to have your child eat something cold — like a popsicle, ice cream bar or ice cubes — prior to taking their medicine, says Shayli. A cold tongue can reduce the severity of the medication’s taste. You can also try bypassing most of the tongue by using a syringe or dropper to place medication towards your child’s lower cheek or back of the tongue.
When kids are receiving medical care, they may be asked to do several hard and scary things during treatment. They can cause them to feel out of control and refuse medication to gain some control back.
Under your supervision, consider administering the medication to your child so they can take it themselves, says Christy. Or, let them make simple choices regarding their medication, like:
For kids who may be tired of liquid medication or need to take pills, parents can practice pill swallowing techniques. Lauren suggests practicing swallowing different types of candy that range in size. Start with small pieces of candy and work your way up, so your kids can build confidence when swallowing larger-sized candies. IF your child is nervous about swallowing pills, remind them that the food they swallow is often bigger than a pill.
Another way to practice pill swallowing is to roll small pieces of bread into a pill shape, says Shayli. This way, you can easily create different sizes for your child to practice swallowing and work your way up, similar to the candies. You can also practice with empty flavored gel caps from your pharmacist.
Establishing a consistent routine for administering your child’s medication can help ease some fear and anxiety. Plan for your child to take their medication in the same location at the same time for the duration of the medication’s instructions. For example, you can administer medication to your child in the kitchen after dinner every night. Try to minimize noise and distractions during this time. In addition, it can help to have a treat or a favorite show available as a reward right after they take their medication.
If kids are having trouble taking their medications, it is important for their parents to stay calm and positive — which is not easy! Sometimes, a parent’s frustration can further upset their child, says Christy. If a child is upset and crying, the likelihood of them gagging or throwing up the medication increases. Practice taking medications in small, 15-minute increments so you and your child can take a break and calm down if needed.
Try to keep the experience low pressure. Taking medications can be difficult mentally — kids might be afraid to swallow a pill or endure an unpleasant taste. Stay positive and use this opportunity to build trust — be by your child’s side during this hard experience. When your child succeeds, praise them to help build their confidence for the next dose.
Parents can try to make taking medications more fun for their young kids by incorporating play. Kids can pretend to give medications to a doll or stuffed animal with a cup or syringe. You can also have a pretend meal or tea party in which you put the liquid medication in a tiny cup for the child to drink, says Lauren.
You may also consider offering your child a small, appropriate reward or incentive in exchange for successfully taking their medication. Some children do well with a sticker chart after each medication and then a reward after a certain amount of time, says Christy.
Make sure to explain the “why” of taking medications. Explain to your kids that you aren’t forcing them to take medication for no reason and was prescribed by their doctor for an important purpose: to help their body get better.
Learn more about medications from CHOC experts