Getting Kids to Take Medicine

When you need more than a spoonful of sugar

There are many tips and tricks you can utilize to convince your preschooler to take her medicine.
There are many tips and tricks you can utilize to convince your preschooler to take her medicine. Jamie Grill

When your child is sick, there are so many things you need to think about. Naturally, your first priority should always be to do all you can to make your little one feel better. For many kids, that means taking medication, whether it is one prescribed by a doctor or one that you buy over-the-counter. (Keep in mind that the FDA advises against giving non-prescription cough and cold medicines to children under 2 to 4 years of age, so you should talk to your pediatrician before you give your child any type of medication.) The problem is actually getting your child to take the medicine.

The reason why a child refuses medicine are plenty:

  • a child who isn't feeling well is likely to begin uncooperative to begin with
  • the medicine upsets the child's stomach
  • the medicine doesn't taste good
  • the child feels like they don't have any control over the situation, since medicine is something they "have" to take

Taking medicine however, is non-negotiable, so you need to come up with a way that will cause the least amount of trauma. Try some of these ideas:

Talk about what medicine does. A preschooler is old enough to understand that medicine has a definite function. On a level that the child will understand, explain how medicine works. For example, you could talk about how medicine is a super hero of sorts, that goes into our bodies to help fight bad-guy germs. Point out how medicine has helped your child feel better in the past. (While you are at it, you should also go over some safety reminders -- how your child should never, ever take a medication without a trusted grown up giving it to them first.)

Offer some control. Preschoolers are all about controlling the situation. So let them feel like they have a choice. While a child can't decide if he wants to take medicine or not, you can certainly give them other options like when they'd like to take it (within a time frame) or what they'd like to drink or eat after (be sure to read the medicine bottle label to see if there is something the child shouldn't have).

Change the flavor. Ask your doctor or pharmacist if it is OK to add a flavor to the medication. (This isn't something you should do yourself, have the pharmacist do it for you.) If flavoring the medicine isn't an option, ask if you can mix it with something like food or juice to make it more palatable.

Talk about what happens if a child doesn't take medicine. If your child is struggling with a sore throat, explain how the medicine is what makes her feel better and that if she doesn't take it, she will continue to feel ill. The goal here isn't to scare your preschooler, but to make her aware of the consequences. Once she does take her medicine and you notice that she is feeling better, point out the difference.

Heap on the praise. If your child does do a good job of taking her medicine, be sure to praise her for doing such a good job. Be sure to enlist the help of other grown ups to tell her what a big girl she is.

Set up a reward system. Consider setting up a reward system to keep track of when your child does a good job of taking his medicine.

Using a reward system not only gives your child something to look forward to after they take their medicine, but if you make the chart up in advance -- say two blocks of ten for a course of antibiotics -- he will be able to see that taking medicine is only temporary and visualize an end date.

Don't use force. It might be tempting to simply hold a stubborn child down and force him to take his medicine, but this isn't the best idea. If you do it once, you'll have to do it again and it will certainly cause your child to get even more upset. Instead, talk to your pediatrician for advice or, see if there is another adult around who can try administering the medication to your little one.

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