How to give your toddler medicine: 14 doctor-approved parent hacks
Does your toddler refuse or resist taking medicine such as Calpol? We have doctor-approved parent-tested strategies for getting your child to take their medicine
Many toddlers really don't mind the fruit-flavoured taste of child paracetamol suspensions, like Calpol, or child ibuprofen suspensions, like Nurofen for Children, but a fair old few absolutely don't. And then there are other medicines your doctor may prescribe for your child to take (liquid antibiotics for an infection, for example) that really don't taste that great.
So what you do you do if your child spits the medicine out or won't open their mouth in the first place but they really do need to get some medicine down them to lower a fever or ease pain?
We've got some clever tips for getting your toddler to take their medicine – all tried and tested by other parents (and their mini medicine refuseniks) and all approved by expert family GP Dr Philippa Kaye...
- Remember: always make sure you follow the correct age-appropriate guidelines on the packaging when you give your child, so that they get the correct dose. And if your child has asthma, don't give them pain-relieving medicine with ibuprofen in it (such as Nurofen for Children) without talking to your GP first.
Here's how to get your toddler to take medicine
1. Aim clever with the syringe
If you've got a medicine-spitter, you may find the solution is to use a syringe to administer the medicine and to aim it very carefully away from the front and centre of your child's mouth (where most of the tastebuds are) and towards a place where they can't taste it nearly so much and from where it's way harder to spit it all out.
"If you're using a syringe, the key is where you put it," says Dr Philippa. "If you put it bang on the middle of the tongue, they can spit it out, so aim your syringe between one cheek and the lower teeth. And release the dose a bit at a time. They can't spit it out that way."
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2. Promise a reward
If your child is old enough to understand, sometimes, a small reward (OK, bribe) might just do the trick. It's obviously not a good idea to bribe your child every time you need them to do something (that way lies a whole heap of difficulty) but when they're ill and need to get better, we reckon it's time to make exceptions.
A simple reward could be a sweet snack/drink: this has the added bonus that it will help take away at the taste of the yucky-flavoured syrup. But, if there's a whole course of medication to get through, you may want to try (instead of or as well) a reward chart: a sticker for each successfully swallowed dose and promised 'prize' at the end of the course.
3. Mix the medicine with something else
As it's generally the taste of the medicine that toddlers don't like, disguising the flavour by mixing it into a favourite drink or food is an obvious option. If you're thinking of doing this, though, do check first with your doctor or pharmacist that it's OK.
"Not all meds can be mixed with juice or food," says Dr Philippa, "so it is important to check."
If you get the green light, pick something you child likes – juice or ice cream or cold yogurt or honey or chocolate spread or fruit puree all work well because sweet or cold foods are good at masking other flavours – and put a small amount (1 to 2 teaspoons) of it in a cup or dish, then stir in the correct dose of medicine.
"Make sure it's only a very small amount of the food/drink," says Dr Philippa, "because your child needs to finish it, so you know they've taken a complete dose of the medicine." You can always top up on with an extra (medicine-free) portion of the food/drink afterwards.
4. Disguise the medicine bottle/spoon/syringe
If your child's got to the point where even the sight of the medicine bottle is making them clamp their mouth shut, we do recommend some careful prep work. Out of your child's sight, put the correct dose of medicine in an empty yogurt pot or some similar nice-and-not-medical packaging, and see if they'll open up for you then.
5. Let them take the medicine themselves
Sometimes, letting your child feel as though they have a little control when it comes to taking medicine can help a lot.
If you have an older toddler who's practised at drinking from cups, you could put the correct amount of medicine in a little (plastic) eggcup or even one of those cardboard shot-size cups that come in bright colours and let them 'dose' themselves.
Or you could try handing over the syringe (pre-filled with the correct medicine dose). It's amazing how many children are thrilled by being allowed to squeeze 'special syringe juice' into their own mouths – though you may have to stand by to offer a helping hand.
6. Use the ice lolly strategy
Sucking an ice lolly before you take your medicine is both a treat – and an excellent way for your child to numb their mouth enough to deaden – or at least considerably lessen – the flavour of the medicine. Follow up with some more ice lolly sucking straight after the medicine's gone down, to get rid of any lingering tastes.
If you don't want to use lollies, this strategy can work if you use a beaker of ice-cold water instead – and a drink with lots of clinking, floating ice cubes can look/sound fun.
7. Include teddy too
Don't underestimate the power of including your child's favourite toy into the whole taking medicine thing. Making a big show of giving teddy (or whoever the toy of the moment is) their medicine first and then praising them for taking it so well can make all the difference when it comes to your child's turn to take their dose.
8. Set a time limit
Some toddlers respond well to a challenge. If you think your child is one of those, set a timer for 20 seconds (or whatever you think is a reasonable time) and say, "Do you think you can take all your medicine before the bell rings?" Go over the top with delighted praise if the challenge is taken on and won. You may even want to shorten the time (or pretend to) for the next dose, to keep the challenge motivating for your child.
9. Try a different brand
It's worth remembering that while one brand of child paracetamol suspension is more well-known than others, it's not the only one: a number of supermarkets have their own-brand medicines equivalents for children – and they sometimes have completely different flavours.
So, it's possible that if your child dislikes the strawberry look and flavour of one brand, they might like the orange look and flavour of another.
11. Offer a choice
If your child's not dextrous enough to administer the medicine themselves (see tip no 5), you can still give them some control over what's happening by offering limited choices. So you could ask, "Do you want your medicine before or after breakfast?" or "Shall we give teddy or dolly their medicine before you today?" (see tip no 7).
If you do have different brands of the same medicine to hand (see tip no 8) and they come in different colours, you could ask your child if they want the 'pink one' or the 'orange one'.
12. Don't make it a performance
Easier said than done, we know, but things will go better if you stay calm and unflustered, and don't involve too many people. It can be overwhelming to a small child if loads of people are trying to persuade them – in all sorts of different ways and tones of voice – to take their medicine.
13. Try the sachets
You can often buy child paracetamol suspension in a box of single-dose sachets. And sucking on a snipped-open sachet can be way more fun than opening wide for someone else to stick a spoon or syringe in your mouth. If you find this tip works, always check your child has sucked out the full dose before throwing the sachet away.
14. Act the fool
Tell your child that when they've taken their medicine, Mum or Dad will do the "hot-foot penguin dance". And when they do finish their dose, leap into the silliest, flappiest, jumpiest, smiliest dance you can, singing "You took your medicine!" as you caper about. Your child will find it so funny, they'll be more than happy to take their next dose of medicine just to see your silly dance all over again.
And finally, do keep trying with the simple spoon or syringe. As your child gets older, you'll probably find that things change: the syringe you battled with few months ago might not longer be an issue, or the flavour you child hated might become bearable as their tastebuds develop.
About our expert Dr Philippa Kaye
Dr Philippa Kaye works as a GP in both NHS and private practice. She attended Downing College, Cambridge, then took medical studies at Guy’s, King’s and St Thomas’s medical schools in London, training in paediatrics, gynaecology, care of the elderly, acute medicine, psychiatry and general practice. Dr Philippa has also written a number of books, including ones on child health, diabetes in childhood and adolescence. She is a mum of 3.
Pics: Getty Images
Helen is author of the classic advice book Parenting for Dummies and a mum of 3. Before joining MadeForMums, she was Head of Community at Mumsnet and also the Consumer Editor of Mother & Baby.
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