5 clever ways to give medicine to a preschooler

Check out these genius tricks for administering medicine to a preschooler who’s refusing it.

When Rebecca Sutcliffe realized her usual matter-of-fact, “Time to take your medicine!” approach wasn’t going to work anymore, she didn’t know what to do. Her three-year-old had pink eye and needed drops three times a day for 10 days. “She cried and said ‘no’ again and again,” remembers the Winnipeg mom. “We ended up bribing her with chocolate—she got to have it after the drops, but she could hold it while they went in.”

Whether it’s eye drops, antibiotics, a puffer or just plain Tylenol, giving medicine to a cranky, sick preschooler who’s refusing it can be a stressful, sticky situation. We asked the experts what works.

1. Put kids in charge
“Draw up the dose into a medicine cup or syringe, and then let them decide how much they take at a time, under supervision, until it’s done,” says John Forster-Coull, a pharmacist and dad of two in Victoria. Sutcliffe offers her kids choices: “Do you want your medicine before you get dressed or after?”

2. Make it playful
Inject some fun by suggesting your kiddo give a favourite stuffed animal a dose of medicine first (use water in an eyedropper, a medicine cup or a syringe), recommends Rod Rassekh, a paediatrician and father of two in Vancouver.

When Rachel Young’s then four-year-old son Benjamin needed to use an inhaler with a spacer (a chamber device with a mask to help him breathe in the medicine) twice a day to treat his asthma, it was initially a rough experience. “He panicked because he felt like he wasn’t going to be able to breathe with the mask tight on his nose and mouth,” says the Thunder Bay, Ont., mom of two. What worked? They would take a few deep breaths together before she put the mask on him, and she would say, “This is your diver’s mask—get ready to do a deep-sea dive.”

3. Use bribery
Think of a reward that will motivate your kid, find an image of it online and print it out. Then cut the picture into pieces, one for each day or dose, and every time she takes her meds, she gets one piece of the puzzle to tape to the wall or some cardboard. When the prescription’s done, she receives the toy. “It’s effective because it’s visual,” says Rassekh. “Kids see they’re getting closer to the reward.”

Of course, there’s something to be said for a spoonful of sugar helping the medicine go down. “We use Popsicles, either before or after taking the medicine,” says Rassekh. “The cold numbs the taste buds a bit, and the flavour helps get rid of the taste of the medicine—plus it’s a treat.”

4. Make it less icky
Experts say it’s usually OK to mix liquid medicine with yogurt, applesauce or juice, but double-check with your pharmacist first—the antibiotic tetracycline, for example, weakens when combined with dairy. The other caution, says Rassekh, is that you have to make sure your child eats or drinks every last spoonful of yogurt or drop of apple juice in order to get the full dose of medicine.

It’s also fine to add a small amount of flavour, such as chocolate syrup or those “water enhancing” drops, to liquid medicine. But again, check with your pharmacist first. Always add the flavouring to the medicine cup or spoon, not the bottle.

5. Change the form
Over-the-counter pain meds are available in chewable form for ages two and up, which some kids much prefer. A compounding pharmacy can reformulate many prescription medications into gummies or thin flavoured strips that dissolve on the tongue.

Depending on the medication, your doctor may also be able to write a prescription for a dose that’s more concentrated (a smaller amount with a stronger taste) or more diluted (a bigger amount but milder taste).

Try different strategies until you settle on something that works. “Getting medication into kids can be really challenging,” says Rassekh. “But for even the most taste-averse, stubborn child, you just have to find the right technique.” 

Expert tip: Eye drops
Eye drops can be super hard to administer to little kids. Try this trick:

  • Have your child lie down with her head propped up and her chin lifted
  • Give her two tissues, one for each hand, and tell her that her job is to hold the tissues beside her eyes, near her temples.
  • Tell her to gently close her eyes. Squeeze the drops into the inner corner of each eyelid, and then ask her to slowly open her eyes. The drops should run in all by themselves.

Read more:
6 common medication mistakes parents make with kids
How to get your child to take medicine
Parents are still giving kids unsafe cough and cold medicine

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