Getting Kids to Take Medicine

You may not be able to turn yucks into yums, but with a little creativity, you can get kids to take their medicine.

Helpful Approaches

Glassy-eyed, feverish, with a throat so sore she could barely talk, my 4-year-old daughter was suffering from a doozy of a strep throat. And no matter how hard I tried, she simply would not take her medicine.

Finally, after a half hour of pleading and cajoling, I mixed the prescribed amount with a smidgen of apple juice, promised her some chocolate-turtle-fudge ice cream as a reward, and watched with weary satisfaction as she swallowed every last bit. All the while, I wondered, "Do other mothers have to jump through hoops when their children need medication?"

The answer, of course, is a resounding yes. Either because they hate the taste or they don't want to be pushed around or they just feel too sick to cooperate, children often refuse to take their medicine. As a result, resourceful parents develop all manner of tricks to make the medicine go down. "You have to be creative, because medication is a must if your child is going to get better," says Elizabeth Sugarbaker, M.D., a pediatrician in Clayton, Missouri. Following are some strategies suggested by parents and pediatricians.

Helpful Approaches

The Avoid-the-Taste-Buds Approach
The idea here is to help the medicine make a detour around the bitter taste buds, located on the back of the tongue. When Barbara Wagner, a mom from Malverne, New York, gives Kate, 1, and Jonathan, 4, liquid medicine, she places the dropper in their cheek pouch. "They don't taste it that way," she says. "And it's harder for them to spit it out."

The Spoonful-of-Sugar Approach
This time-honored tactic -- combining medicine with a little sweet-tasting food or drink to mask the bitterness -- does work much of the time. And the most effective camouflage, according to some pediatricians, is cherry-flavored syrup or white grape juice, although parents on the front lines often use kitchen staples such as applesauce or flavored yogurt.

The Makeover Approach
"Children make decisions about medicine based on what it looks like," says Wendy Klein-Schwartz, Pharm.D., a coordinator of research and education for the Maryland Poison Center, in Baltimore. "If they don't like its appearance, you're going to have trouble getting it down." In desperation, Joan Morgan, of Pelham, New York, added a drop or two of red food coloring to 4-year-old Madeline's medicine cup. The liquid was transformed from a chalky white to a pleasant pink. Madeline was enchanted -- and finished the entire dose with a smile.

The Avoid-the-Mouth Approach
If your feverish kid throws up whatever he swallows or refuses to take medicine at all, find out whether the medication is available in suppository form. (Blessedly, acetaminophen is.) The dosage is based on a child's weight, but always check with your pediatrician before administering.

The Sticker Approach
Is your child a Lion King fan? Get some Simba stickers, draw a jungle scene on a piece of paper, and let him attach a sticker each time he swallows a dose. It's even more effective if your pediatrician participates: When your child has finished all his medication, he can bring his completed artwork along on his follow-up visit to the doctor as proud proof of his accomplishment.

The "I'm All Grown Up" Approach
Your mission as the parent is to create the illusion that your kid is in the driver's seat. As soon as Gail Zoppo, of Woodbridge, New Jersey, let 5-year-old Amber hold the cupful of medicine, their battles stopped. One pediatrician puts her toddler twins' medicine into toy teacups, enabling them to take it on their own.

The Try-Try-Again Approach
In a crisis, call your doctor or pharmacist and ask if you can substitute another type of medicine. For instance, you may be able to obtain a better-tasting antibiotic made by a different company. Sometimes, the brand-name version of a drug has a more pleasant taste; in other cases, the generic is preferable. Often, a child may actually dislike the consistency of a medicine, not the taste; in this instance, a thicker or thinner liquid may do the trick.

The Just-Around-the-Corner Approach
It may be cheating, but if my daughter gets really sick in the month or so before her birthday and refuses to take her medicine, I resort to the "If you don't get better, we won't be able to have your friends over for a party" line. She'll just about fall over herself in her rush to get that medicine down. I often wish we could celebrate half-birthdays.

Ilana Wiles: Favorite Parenting Hacks
Ilana Wiles: Favorite Parenting Hacks

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