After a string of ear, nose, and throat infections, 3-year-old Shana had developed quite a talent for refusing to take her medicine. "She turns her head, runs away, and performs a whole-body wiggle dance just to make sure not a drop of it enters her mouth. She has even made herself throw up when she sees it coming," says her mom, Julia Jaman of Brooklyn, New York.
Sound familiar? Getting kids to take their medicine is no small task, especially when you're faced with a balky, feverish toddler. According to a survey by the American Academy of Pediatrics, about 25 percent of pediatricians reported that their patients often fail to take medication as prescribed. The leading reasons for noncompliance include too many doses and unpleasant taste.
A parent's first step should always be to consider whether the medicine is truly necessary. "Over-the-counter cold, cough, and flu remedies won't do anything to cure or shorten the duration of the illness," says Michael K. Levine, MD, a pediatrician in Atlanta. In addition, some symptoms are actually beneficial. "A cough is productive because it's working the mucus and germs out," says Dr. Levine. "Allow the child to cough it out during the day, and give her medicine only at night so she can rest."
Of course, some things, like taking an antibiotic prescription, are simply not negotiable. However, you don't have to resort to tackling your child and force-feeding. Try these surefire -- yet kind and gentle -- ways to get the medicine down.
Tricks for Babies
Turn yucky into yummy. A quick fix for a prescription is to ask the pharmacist to add a flavor enhancer called FLAVORx. This system features 42 different flavors, such as bubble gum and candy cane, and adds about $3 to the cost of the medicine. To find a pharmacy near you that offers it, visit the Web site www.flavorx.com. Also, tell your pediatrician about any antibiotic your child didn't like, so she may prescribe another one the next time.
Squirt it. Using an oral syringe, which gives you more control than a medicine dropper, is probably the best way to give an infant medicine. "Aim for the inside of the cheek rather than the back of the mouth, which may cause gagging and coughing," says John B. Roth, MD, a clinical professor of pediatrics at the University of Louisville in Kentucky. "You needn't give the entire dose in one shot. Try half at a time."
Use a sucker. Fill a bottle nipple with medicine and have your baby suck it like a pacifier, suggests Kathy Barnes of Des Moines, who found that this worked for her 9-month-old, Aileen. "By the time she realizes what it is, it's down the hatch," says Barnes. "We then add a bit of water to flush it all down." You can also buy a pacifier medicine dispenser in stores.
Look up, baby. Sit your child in an upright position, such as in the high chair or Exersaucer, or propped up on a Boppy, and get her to look up by dangling a toy over her head, suggests Jana Del Valle of Kansas City, Missouri, who does this with 8-month-old Morgan. "While she's busy inspecting the toy, her mouth opens slightly and I can get the dropper in. It's sneaky but it works."
Swaddle him. Wrap your baby in a blanket like a newborn to keep his flailing hands from batting the medicine away, says Margaret Peele of Stoneville, North Carolina, mom of Xavier, 10 months. "I also blow on his face after giving him the medicine, which prompts him to swallow [due to a reflex]."
Have a cheery delivery. Give baby his medicine with smiles and an upbeat tone. "When I have to give my 9-month-old, Xander, medicine, I act like it's yummy -- he usually wants what I have -- and he drinks it right away," says Amie Velazquez of Goose Creek, South Carolina. Shannan Kiger of Plainfield, Illinois, agrees: "We say the word 'medicine' with the same excitement that we say 'cookies' or 'chocolate.'"
Chill it. Some medicines require refrigeration. Even if yours doesn't, check with the pharmacist as to whether it's okay to put it in the fridge. The taste is usually not as strong if the medicine is cold. Numbing your child's tongue with an ice pop first also helps kill the taste, says Danielle Gebeyehu of London, Ontario, mother of Bayden, 4, and Ashton, 3 months. Ice pops also make a good after-medicine treat and can cool a feverish child.
Tips for Toddlers
Keep 'em laughing. Get children to laugh as hard as they can. Then when they're off guard, in the medicine goes, says Cheryl Boone of Astoria, New York, who employed this tactic with her two children. "You must keep them laughing after the big swallow, too. Don't miss a beat or you're caught!"
Hide it in food or drink. Chocolate syrup is good at masking bad tastes, says Ari Brown, MD, coauthor of Baby 411: Clear Answers and Smart Advice for Your Baby's First Year (Windsor Peak Press). "Mix the medicine with just a teaspoon of chocolate. It's like a spoonful of sugar, but goes down more easily." Note: Don't use this for babies younger than 6 months, and avoid honey (it can cause botulism poisoning in kids under age 1) and peanut butter (it's highly allergenic) altogether.
Also, check with your doctor or the pharmacist's handout about whether a medicine can be taken with food. Other favorite mixers include applesauce, pudding, gelatin, juice, and milk. Again, the key with this tactic is to use just a tiny amount -- say, a spoonful of food or just an ounce of liquid -- because the child must eat or drink it all, says Dr. Roth. For babies, mix the medicine with formula or breast milk only as a last resort. They often detect the medicine and may refuse their next bottle or nursing.
Give your child some control. "Kids ages 2 to 3 definitely want to be in charge," says Dr. Brown. "For them, the issue may be that they want to hold the spoon themselves." Give them choices, but the choice can't be to forgo the medicine. For instance, ask: Would you like to use a spoon or a cup? Do you want to take the medicine before you play a game or read a book? Allowing Hunter, 2 1/2, to choose where to take his medicine and with whom worked like a charm for a recent antibiotic, says Shannan Kiger. "He chose a favorite living room chair and Granddad's lap, and drank it all up."
Feed a friend first. "My son was given a stuffed dog when he had ear tube surgery last year and the nurses would take the blood pressure and temperature of the dog first," says Carrie Moore of Lake City, Florida, and mom of Phillip, 2. "So at home I give Ruff the medicine first, and then Phillip will take it."
Try a different form. In addition to liquids, medicines come in a variety of forms such as chewables and tablets. Perhaps you'll have better success with one of these. "A 2-year-old may be able to handle a chewable, provided she can talk a little and understand some directions. Parents must supervise the chewing and swallowing," says Dr. Roth. "Better still are the 'quick-dissolve' tablets. Once saliva hits them, they're gone." Another idea Dr. Brown employs is to prescribe the adult tablets that the pharmacist cuts in half. "Parents can pulverize these and then mix them with a bit of ice cream."
Offer a reward. "I'm not above bribery when your child is sick -- because it's a temporary thing," says Dr. Levine. You can give her a bit of candy, a juice or soda chaser, or let her watch a video. Of course, don't go overboard with goodies for every dose, says Dr. Brown: "With an antibiotic, you're talking about 20 doses." Some extra TLC from you, reading a story, or playing a game together may be a better reward. Heather Satlof of Avon, Connecticut, lets her daughter Lilli wear a princess crown when she has to take medicine: "She loves the royal treatment."
Acknowledge that it tastes bad, but will make them feel better. Sometimes the best policy is to tell the truth -- you can't claim it's not yucky when you're going to be proved wrong in a second. "We sit my 2-year-old, Andrew, on the counter and put the medicine in a big-boy spoon. We tell him that the magic medicine will make him feel better," says Tanya Rathbun of Wappingers Falls, New York. Likewise, Myriam Ward of Apple Valley, California, says her 16-month-old, Emily, cried if they tried to force-feed her medicine. "The best solution was to show the medicine to her and talk her through it," she says. "We let her know she's doing a great job."
Amy Zintl is a writer in New City, New York, and a mother of three.
All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.