Helping your child to take their medicine

Getting your child to take their medicine can sometimes be challenging, especially if they’ve had a bad experience in the past—or simply don’t like the taste! But when taking medications as prescribed is a non-negotiable part of improving their health and wellbeing, it’s important to find a way to get the job done.

Whether it’s tablets or liquids, here’s a guide to make sure the stress doesn’t go up as the medicine goes down.

General tips

Some of the best tips are the most simple:

  • Be honest about the taste of medications (don’t tell them it tastes good if it doesn’t!)
  • Explain to your child what their medicine does and how it is helping them, so they understand why it’s important that they take it.
  • Use ‘first and then’ language, for example: first we take our medicine, then we get to go and play.
  • Build in praise and rewards. Say “good job” every time they take their medicine or set up a simple reward system like a sticker chart for motivation.
  • Model medicine taking at every opportunity. If you take medication yourself as a parent, you can use this time to take your medications together.
  • Give your child choice when you can. They can feel more in control by making small decisions such as who gives the medication (them or a trusted family member) and how the medication is taken (as a tablet, liquid, in food).

Sometimes when children feel anxious, having a parent take control and assist them actually helps them to feel less stressed. Although the child may be distressed at the time, you’ll find that they visibly relax quite quickly after the event.

Remember: Children must always be supervised when taking medicine. 

A matter of taste

The bitter taste of some medicines can be a tough sell for young children, but there are some options you can try:

  • Use a dropper to put the medicine on the inside of your child’s cheek pouch. This avoids the bitter taste buds at the back of the tongue.
  • Disguise the flavour—ask your pharmacist for advice on how to do this.

Swallowing tablets and capsules safely

One of the biggest sticking points in taking medicine can be the concept of swallowing tablets or capsules. Children can usually start swallowing tablets safely from the age of 2.  However, like everything, every child learns this skill at their own pace.  When you feel your child is ready to learn how to swallow tablets, a graded or staged approach may help. This involves getting your child to swallow small-sized foods and slowly building up to tablet-sized foods.

Step 1: Teach them how to actively swallow

If your child doesn’t understand the concept of swallowing without chewing, teaching them how to do this safely is an important first step.

  • Take a spoonful of food or drink and show them how you swallow. Try to exaggerate the motion of swallowing. You might find it helpful to gesture with your hand to show how the food or drink travels from your mouth, down your throat to your stomach. You may make a gulp or swallow sound.
  • Open your mouth after you swallow to show them that the food has disappeared. Children respond well to seeing that the food is ‘all gone!’.
  • Emphasise that swallowing means not chewing the food.

Step 2: Practice swallowing with lollies

The graded approach begins with teaching your child to swallow small lollies in thick foods.

  • You can use puree apple, yoghurt, custard or  jam. Start with getting your child to practice swallowing the thick food alone. Place a spoonful in their mouth and encourage them to do a big swallow.
  • Next, place a small lolly (for example, a hundred and thousand) on a spoonful of the thick food. Your child can push the lolly into the puree so it is covered. 

The idea is to get your child to consistently swallow the small lolly in one motion. Consistently means 5 to 10 times in a row. When your child achieves this, you can increase to the next lolly size and repeat the method until you reach the desired tablet size.

Lolly sizes from smallest to largest

  • Hundreds and Thousands
  • Sugar pearls (cake decorating)
  • ½ sultana/mini M&M / ½ Tic Tac
  • Full sultana or Tic Tac
  • Jelly snakes or jelly lollies can be cut into any size

Step 3: Switch to tablets

Once your child can consistently swallow lollies the size of Tic Tacs, swap the lollies for tablets. Follow the same swallowing techniques they learned with lollies and continue to provide lots of praise!

Step 4: Swallowing tablets with water

After some time taking tablets mixed with puree, you can teach your child to swallow tablets with water (when they are late toddler or starting school age). Use the same method as above (start by swallowing hundreds and thousands with water, and then progress through the sizes until you reach Tic Tacs with water).

Teaching tips

Keep the practice sessions fun and short (10 to 15 minutes)—kids respond well to a low-pressure environment and lots of praise. If your child is having difficulty learning, leave it and try again later. Ensure your child is sitting upright and comfortably when taking their tablets.