Swallowing a pill is an important skill that many of us take for granted until
we have a child who needs to swallow a pill. Many things — from anxiety to stubbornness
— can make it harder for some kids to swallow pills.
But don't worry. Just like any skill, learning to swallow a pill takes practice.
If you teach your child at the right time and in the right way, it can be a positive
experience that builds your child's confidence. In no time, it'll be something that
you both take for granted.
While a lot of medicines come in chewable or liquid form, some medicine is best
taken as a pill or tablet. In fact, certain pills that are meant to be swallowed whole
should never be crushed or chewed, as this can be dangerous. And some medicines are
meant to work over a few hours instead of all at once. That may be impossible to do
if the medicine is a chewable or a liquid.
Before giving your child any medicine, follow the directions on the medicine label
and talk to your doctor or pharmacist
if you have any questions.
When Should Kids Learn?
Every child is unique, so the age at which kids learn to swallow a pill will vary.
Try to avoid comparing your child with other kids, even siblings. In general, kids
should be at least 4 years old and at a stage when they seem cooperative and motivated
to learn new skills.
Ideally, you'll want to practice before your child needs to take medicine so there
is no pressure. Start with something very small like an ice cream or cake sprinkle.
After a few successful attempts, gradually increase the size of the candy (mini-chocolate
chips or chocolate chips may work). Then you can move on to a pill such as a non-chewable
Practice when things like TVs and cellphones are turned off and there are no other
distractions. Don't expect your child to learn this skill overnight: practice for
5 to 10 minutes a day for about 2 weeks.
What to Do
Before kids swallow their first real pill, remind them of other skills they
have mastered (like riding a tricycle or tying a shoelace), and explain why taking
medicine is important in the first place so they'll feel good about taking it. Then
model the behavior. If possible, let your child see you take one of your own medicine
pills or a multivitamin before it's his or her turn.
When it's your child's turn to swallow a pill, remember to stay calm. If you're
nervous, your child will be, too. Stay positive, even if things don't go right the
first time, and avoid any negative feedback. You also want to avoid negative experiences
related to pills. For example, trying to sneak a pill into food and getting caught
may actually backfire by creating mistrust.
To swallow the pill, have your child:
sit up straight with the head centered and straight
avoid tilting the head too far back, which can make swallowing more difficult
have your child take a few sips of water to "practice" swallowing
then, put the pill on your child's tongue and then have him or her drink the water
again. (Sometimes having kids drink through straws can help distract them by focusing
on something different.)
Check the directions to see if a pill can be taken with food. If the pill does
not have to be taken on an empty stomach, you can have your child take sips with something
thicker than water, like milk or a milkshake. You also can try putting the pill in
a semi-solid food like pudding or applesauce.
Praise your child if he or she swallows the pill successfully. If not, calmly tell
your child that it's OK and try again. If your child refuses, stop and take a break.
You can always try again later.
If the pill seems too large for your child to swallow, ask the pharmacist if it's
safe to cut the pill into smaller portions.
When to Seek a Doctor's Advice
Chances are that with enough patience and practice, most kids will learn the skill
of swallowing a pill.
Some kids, though, might have trouble with it, including:
kids who are very anxious about new medicines or new experiences
kids who had a bad prior experience (like gagging or vomiting) when they tried
to swallow a pill
kids with developmental delays; oral-motor problems (such as speech problems or
refusal to eat certain food textures); or behavioral problems (which could include
refusing to take any medicine)
For these kids, it may be wise to delay training and to speak to a doctor first.