When your toddler refuses medication

My toddler has an ear infection and needs to take an antibiotic. He hates the taste and if I can even get it in his mouth he spits most of it right out. Do you have any tips to make it easier to give medication to my little one?

Question:

Many toddlers and even preschoolers resist taking medicine. Taking medicine makes no sense to children. They don’t understand bacterial infections. They can’t fathom why they should eat something that tastes horrible. It is a wonderful act of civil disobedience when they stand up for their rights and either refuse, or spit out the medicine you so carefully bought for them. They may resist simply because it tastes awful.

We also know that young children don’t like the feeling of being forced to do something. Toddlers and preschoolers are just learning about being in control of themselves. Having someone insist that they put something in their mouth contradicts their sense of being in charge of their bodies. Further, when kids are sick, it may be even more difficult for them to feel cooperative. Here are some strategies to think about:

  • Dealing with the horrible taste. There are several things you can do to mitigate the bad taste of antibiotics. Some children will take it if it is mixed with food or juice. Sometimes it works for your child to hold some juice or yogurt ready and quickly take a sip or bite after the antibiotic. One parent found that her daughter liked to drink from a glass of water in between squirts of the medicine. The most common antibiotic prescribed for children is liquid, but it also comes in tablet form. Some kids may prefer chewing a tablet. It may also be easier to mix a tablet into juice, yogurt, applesauce, jam or ice cream to hide the taste.

    Be sure to check with your pharmacist for suggestions and compatibility.

  • Dealing with control issues. Giving your child choices and letting him do as much as he can for himself helps him with his sense of control. He might want to get the medicine out of the refrigerator. He might be interested in using a syringe or a dropper and putting it in his own mouth. He could choose whether he wants it in the bathroom or the kitchen, standing up or laying in your lap. Some children feel less overwhelmed if they get it in several small squirts rather than one big gulp. Helping him make a favorite sandwich or cookie to have afterwards may ease his sense of helplessness. He could even help set the timer for five minutes to signal the time to take his medicine.
  • Pretend play. Many times dramatic play can offer children a chance to understand stressful events and to gain a sense of mastery over their experience. He might enjoy having some colored water and a syringe so he can give his baby doll medicine. He may want to give you some of that same placebo (again and again.)
  • Give your child information. Even though children can’t understand the biology of their bodies or the scientific working of medicine, explaining to him why he is taking medicine will help him feel more included. "This medicine will help your ear get better so it won’t be sick and hurt anymore, but you have to take your medicine lots of times before it starts to help."
  • Take your time. Giving children medicine is rarely successful if you are in a hurry. Getting in pace with your child, letting him get comfortable with each step may help relax him into it. Just trying to "force" things and get them over with rarely helps.
  • Check with your doctor for suggestions. Even with all your careful preparation, your child still may be wildly resistant to taking his medicine, and as you experienced, even spit it back in your face. Check with your doctor for suggestions about alternatives or appropriate ways to hold your child and put the medicine in his mouth so that he can’t spit it back out.
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