Spoonful of Sugar Please

Today’s Ask Dr.Mom’s post deals with the dreaded medicine struggle. What to do when faced with a crying child absolutely refusing to take her medication? I’m no Mary Poppins but I’ve got some tips to share.

Dear Dr.Mom

My daughter needs to take antibiotics but she is giving me such a hard time. Is there anything I can do to make this process easier?


Helping the medicine go down easy can be a difficult task at times. What to do when you know your child needs to take antibiotics and her mouth is clamped down and she outright refuses to take it? Here are some tips for helping that medicine go down easier. Unfortunately, unlike the cute Mary Poppins jingle, it’s not always as easy as “just a spoonful of sugar”.

For infants and toddlers I like using the syringe dropper to administer the medicine. Squirt a little at a time into the pocket of the cheek, not directly on the tongue. Give your child a gentle blow on the face. This will trigger a swallowing response before your child has a chance to spit it out. I did feel odd at first blowing in my child’s face but I knew he needed the medicine and it worked with minimal crying.

Preschool and school age children are more amenable to a variety of tactics. You may have to try a few from the list below before you find what works for your child.

Try offering juice immediately following the medicine. I do not like to mix the medicine with the juice as it is possible the child may not finish that cup of juice. Have the cup ready, show your child that she will get some juice immediately following her dose of medicine. You can even break up the dose by giving half, then some juice, then the rest of the dose followed by juice again. Be gentle and talk your child through the process.

Your child could care less for juice? What does she like? For my son, it was chocolate milk. I had the medicine in one hand and the chocolate milk in another. With each sip of medicine, he got a sip of chocolate milk. It worked.

My daughter? She’s all about the jelly beans. So, once she took her medicine, I doled out a few jelly beans. So yes, I suppose a spoonful of sugar does help the medicine go down.

Make sure your child’s medication is flavored. When picking up your child’s medication from the pharmacist, ask if it can be flavored (if it isn’t already).

If your child is particularly resistant, offer a sticker reward chart. With each successful dose she takes, give her a sticker. At the end, why not reward her with a small gift? The dollar store is great for that!

Involve your child in the whole process. Let her pick out the cup she will use for her juice “chaser”. If possible, let her help you measure out her dose. Regaining some control will diminish some of the battle.

Be consistent: have a set time each day that your child will receive her medication. This way she knows when it is coming. Give her a five minute warning to allow her time to pep herself up.

Try not to engage in any physical struggles. Instead, talk with your child. Emphasize the importance of taking a particular medication. Explain how it will help her body get better. Include specifics, like “this medicine will help you get better so you can go over to your friend’s house to play”.

Is it the delivery method? If the liquid isn’t cutting it see if a particular medication comes in the form of a chewable or melt away. This may work for the older child. Additionally, some children will still do well with liquid but prefer the dropper syringe as opposed to the spoon. I prefer using the dropper syringe for as long as possible. This ensures dose accuracy and less chance of losing some of the medicine due to spills.

Be understanding but firm. Certainly empathy goes a long way but when your child needs to take a particular medication, it is non-negotiable. Help her realize the importance of this. Explain to her that she can not move on to her next desired activity until she has finished taking her medicine.

Good Luck and I hope some of these helped.

What about you? Have you struggled with getting your child to take his medicine? What were some ways you found to make it easier?

*Notice I added a tab at the top titled Ask Dr.Mom, this will take you to the page of all Ask Dr.Mom topics to date. Hopefully this will be a useful reference for you. Thank you Liz and Yuliya for this great suggestion.*

*Remember to keep the questions coming. I’m loving this weekly feature and love to hear what is on your mind*

22 Responses to Spoonful of Sugar Please
  1. Kasey
    December 1, 2010 | 5:17 am

    My daughter is awful at taking medicine. Thankfully, she's not sick very often but when she had chicken pox we had to resort to giving her a suppository. I never heard of the first time but will definitely be trying it!

  2. SusanF
    December 1, 2010 | 6:07 am

    We were always successful with the 'yucky medicine dance'. After swallowing the medicine, encourage the child to dance as wildly as possible, while chanting "yucky yucky yucky". The silliness of it got him over the taste.

  3. AnnaNova
    December 1, 2010 | 7:51 am

    thanks for this post, i sometimes struggle with that issue myself. I wanted to mention that I recently read an article (and i wish i had the link, but i dont) that talked about dangers of flavored / sugared children medication. Among the issues listed was that children will want MORE medicine if it has sugar or flavor, some kids will pretend they are sick to get more sugary stuff. Last time my son was sick, i noticed he developed a taste for his tylenol and liked when i gave it to him. I dont really want him to WANT to be sick, to WANT to take meds… someone told me that some of kids meds can be obtained as suppositories, so now i try to do that when i can.

  4. Melissa (Confessions of a Dr. Mom)
    December 1, 2010 | 8:03 am

    @AnnaNova, thanks for mentioning that about the flavored medicine. I do remember a time when I had this problem where my son acutally wanted more medicine b/c it tasted so good! I had to remind him and explain that it is just as important to only take the amount he needs otherwise he could get sick from that and that it's dangerous to take medication when he doesn't need it or isn't sick. Plus, the medicines should always be kept out of reach. The suppositories are a good alternative if you have a vomiting, sick child. Thanks Anna!

    @SusanF: Love the idea of the yucky dance! Yay!

  5. Cheryl D.
    December 1, 2010 | 1:31 pm

    One thing that made a HUGE difference for us was asking my daughter's pediatrician for a yummier antibiotic. There is a huge range in who antibiotics taste. He gave us one that he heard great feedback on. He felt it wasn't as potent as the one he prefers, but felt it was worth a try. My daughter LOVED it and it was successful in knocking out her infection!

  6. TheBabyMammaChronicles
    December 1, 2010 | 2:55 pm

    Good tips! I never would have figured out the blowing on the face one. When I was little we had a special cup with a pill shelf in it for when it was medicine time. I dont know why but I loved that thing!

  7. Shell
    December 1, 2010 | 5:24 pm

    Oh yes, my middle son is a nightmare with this. He's four and he doesn't get the reasoning- not behind medicine or much of anything else. I cringe when he needs to take anything.

  8. Shell
    December 1, 2010 | 5:24 pm

    Oh…maybe all medicines can come in a gummy candy form. That would work. LOL

  9. Joey @ Big Teeth and Clouds
    December 1, 2010 | 5:57 pm

    Thank goodness my daughter enjoys medicine. "Here take this, it's medicine…" and she's all about it.

    Strange, but helpful for me.

  10. Kristin
    December 1, 2010 | 7:06 pm

    Great tips!

    So far my kids love the taste of Tylenol and Zyrtec, thank goodness!

  11. Melissa {adventuroo}
    December 1, 2010 | 8:52 pm

    Great tips– never knew about the blowing in the face thing. That would have come in handy last week, although Little Roo was a trooper for most of his medicine.

  12. Magnolia Girl Stuck in the Middle of America
    December 1, 2010 | 10:26 pm

    My son has Leukemia,so he has to take tons of medication on a daily basis. The first month in a half there was a lot of screaming and holding down, but it is getting better. We have a box full of dollar store "medicine" presents. He also has a sticker chart. Another thing that has worked well is when I prepare his syringe, I make one for myself with juice or coke or water and I let him give it to me. And say okay mommy took her medicine, now it's your turn. Also Thomas the Train and his friends sometimes get to take a "pretend" dose with the syringe. He just laughs and then opens his mouth for his turn.

  13. Betsy at Zen-Mama
    December 1, 2010 | 10:40 pm

    What great ideas that can be applied to lots of areas of motherhood, not just taking medicine. All life needs a little sugar! Thanks Dr. Mom!!

  14. Flying Giggles and Lollipops
    December 2, 2010 | 10:37 am

    Thanks so much! This really helps. I have to remember the blow in the face technique. When I gave Chloe her meds, she just kept spitting them out. I tried offering juice and candy, but she was not having it! In the end, I managed to mix it in a very small amount of juice, about 4 tablespoons and she drank it.

  15. Booyah's Momma
    December 2, 2010 | 12:31 pm

    When my daughter was an infant, the only way I could get her to take her medicine was by mixing it with a little breastmilk. I put that little concoction into a little binkie medicine dispenser (I think they're made by Munchkin), and that was the only thing that seemed to work. We found that out through a lot of trial and error, though! :)

  16. Ameena
    December 2, 2010 | 1:28 pm

    I've been lucky enough not to have to give my daughter medication thus far. Not even Tylenol! I don't take medicine so I prefer that she doesn't either. I bet there will come a time though when it's inevitable so I'm mentally noting your jelly bean suggestion!

  17. Mrs.Mayhem
    December 2, 2010 | 2:01 pm

    These are great ideas. I had some battles with my kids when they were younger about antibiotics, and a calm, matter-of-fact attitude worked wonders.

  18. Rachael
    December 2, 2010 | 3:30 pm

    My son gets so upset when it's time to take medicine that he will vomit it up. He's 4 1/2 years old. Last time he was sick I resorted to putting it in Sprite, and made sure he drank the whole cup. I felt a little bad, but he really needed that medicine because he was coughing until he threw up. Whatever works I guess…

  19. Yuliya
    December 2, 2010 | 8:04 pm

    Since this blog has the word 'confessions' in the title and since you mentioned flavored medicine…
    one time when I was maybe nine we had some cough syrup that was so tasty that I drank the whole bottle (I was a latch key kid, can you tell?) so word of warning make sure it's not too tasty! Or you know keep medicine out of reach of children, whatever…

  20. Lady Jennie
    December 3, 2010 | 2:21 pm

    Oh wow. I never heard about blowing on the cheek. Ironically, I find that the brand name antibiotics go down much better than the generic (all the money spent on taste and texture?)

  21. Lady Jennie
    January 21, 2011 | 10:30 am

    And there we go. In one ear and out the other. I completely forgot about the blowing on the cheek. Now I have a chance to put it into practice, instead of trying to keep his lower jaw wedged open so he can't swallow.

  22. Anonymous
    July 14, 2011 | 10:30 am

    I have a couple of "tricks" for children:

    -peanut butter and chocolate are especially good at masking taste. try giving a little bit before and after.

    -giving something cold, like ice cream before the medicine also helps.

    from your friendly neighbourhood pharmacist :)