Convincing a baby to take their medicine

Baby’s earliest illnesses are scary and tiring even when they’re nothing more than the common cold or the sniffles, but their first health problem that requires medication is on a whole new level. Whether they're young enough that the medication is the first thing they taste besides breast milk or formula, or they have already started to discover solids, convincing your pre-verbal baby that taking their medicine is a good idea can be a challenge. Lucky for you, it’s a challenge parents have been facing for longer than effective medications have actually existed, and a few stand-out techniques have evolved over the years.

The basics

Medication for very young children like Baby usually comes in liquid form. This liquid can be flavored to make it more appealing to Baby. If the medicine is flavored to be something they will like, sometimes you can head off struggles over giving it to them early by offering them a taste from your finger so they can see that it’s good before you start bringing a whole spoon or needleless syringe to their lips. Some liquid medication has a bitter flavor that tastes better when it’s been chilled, so keeping it in the refrigerator before offering it can also help prevent trouble. Topical medications like eye drops can be shocking when applied cold, so warming them between your hands can help with those, too.

The right dosing is especially important in children as young as Baby – in children this young, dosing is determined by weight rather than age, and can change quickly. It’s important to keep dosing consistent, and household measuring spoons and cups can hold slightly different volumes, so it’s always a good idea to use the measuring device that comes with the medication. If you happen to lose the one that comes with this medication, you can usually get a replacement at the pharmacy.

A baby younger than 4 months probably still has a strong tongue-thrust reflex that can make getting them to swallow strange, fake-cherry flavored liquids tricky even if they want to. Needleless plastic syringes are generally the easiest way to administer medication, instead of the little plastic measuring cups or measuring spoons that come with some children’s medication. Many parents choose to stick with the syringes even once their children are old enough to graduate from them, since the syringes offer the best way to get medicine past babies’ taste buds before they know what they’re dealing with.

Starting off on the right foot with medication is a good way to keep from getting started on early anti-medicine power struggles that can stretch through childhood. Start by not expecting the worst. Much like when Baby is learning to walk, and, by extension, learning to fall, they look to you for how to react, and if you start out apologetic, nervous, or upset when you’re first offering them medication, they can pick up on it, and assume it’s something for them to be upset about.

As long as the doctor thinks it’s a good idea, and it’s not a medication that either needs to be taken on an already full stomach or to be taken without food, the best time to administer medication might be immediately before mealtime. This is because if they are hungry, they are more likely to take medication without arguing. Once they’ve administered medication, many parents find it helps to keep a record of the last time they’ve given it. When Baby is sick, life can feel even more chaotic than usual, and it can quite easy to forget exactly when their last dose was.

The next part of starting off on the right foot is not to start off with any tricks or force in administering medication. If you can work with Baby’s natural impulses to get them nice and medicated, it can help to keep them from forming negative associations with medication. Start by putting the syringe in their mouth near the middle of their tongue to see if they will suck out and drink the medicine on their own.

If they isn’t enthused about voluntarily taking their medicine, try threading the syringe back along the inside of their cheek to near the back of their mouth and to one side of their mouth. This position avoids both the front and middle of the tongue, where most of the taste buds are, and the throat and roof of the mouth, which can trigger the gag reflex. From here, slowly squirt the medication into Baby’s mouth, being careful not to go too fast, and to pause to give them time to swallow. Keeping their head tilted back through this process can help, since it means gravity is on your side in convincing Baby to swallow.

Advanced tactics

If Baby isn’t having any of your more basic medication-giving techniques, there are a few more sophisticated tactics you can try – most of them are a little stealthy, but since getting better is, ultimately, definitely in Baby’s best interests, they will forgive you eventually.

  • Start simple: If Baby is old enough to have started solids, it could just be that they are the type who prefers the chalky taste of chewable medications to the bitterness that can hide under the sweetness in liquids. If they doesn’t feel like sinking their teeth – or gums – into tablets either, try crushing one up, mixing it with just a little water until it forms a paste, and spreading the paste on the inside of their cheek for them to swallow that way.
  • Pacify: If Baby uses a pacifier or soother, they may be more willing to take liquid medication from a pacifier-dispenser, which can be found at most drug stores.
  • Dilute: It can be tempting to mix medication into food or a bottle, but this is a risky trick, because it’s important that Baby gets the full dose of medication. If you mix it into a bottle or jar of baby food, the medication in it will only be effective if Baby finishes the whole portion. Sometimes, though, mixing medication into small amounts of food is still the best way to get Baby medicated without too much fuss – just be sure to check in with your pediatrician that mixing it in like this won’t get in the way of the medication’s effectiveness. One way to get around dilution is to mix the medication into a very small amount of baby food, and to offer alternating spoonfuls with unmedicated baby food.
  • Offer control: As Baby gets older, it can help to offer them a certain amount of control over the process – by letting them choose the flavor of the medication, or choose whether to have it before or after dinner, or by having them give their stuffed animals medicine before it’s their turn.

If Baby spits up when they ingested medicine half an hour to 45 minutes ago or longer, Baby has probably already absorbed most of the medicine, but it’s always a good idea to check in with your doctor about whether or not to give them another dose if Baby is having trouble keeping medication down. If they consistently can’t keep it down, the doctor may talk to you about the possibility of using suppositories.

No matter which technique is needed to convince a baby to take their medication, it’s important to keep in mind that it’s important to always take the full course of any antibiotic that’s been prescribed, even if your little one stops showing symptoms and seems to be doing better.

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