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 his first health problem that requires medication is on a whole new level. Whether he’s young enough that the medication is the first thing he tastes besides breast milk or formula, or he has already started to discover solids, convincing your pre-verbal baby that taking his 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 he will like, sometimes you can head off struggles over giving it to him early by offering him a taste from your finger so he can see that it’s good before you start bringing a whole spoon or needleless syringe to his 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 him to swallow strange, fake-cherry flavored liquids tricky even if he wants 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, he looks to you for how to react, and if you start out apologetic, nervous, or upset when you’re first offering him medication, he can pick up on it, and assume it’s something for him 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 he is hungry, he is 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 his 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 him nice and medicated, it can help to keep him from forming negative associations with medication. Start by putting the syringe in his mouth near the middle of his tongue to see if he will suck out and drink the medicine on his own.

If he isn’t enthused about voluntarily taking his medicine, try threading the syringe back along the inside of his cheek to near the back of his mouth and to one side of his 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 him time to swallow. Keeping his 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, he will forgive you eventually.

  • Start simple: If Baby is old enough to have started solids, it could just be that he is the type who prefers the chalky taste of chewable medications to the bitterness that can hide under the sweetness in liquids. If he doesn’t feel like sinking his 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 his cheek for him to swallow that way.
  • Pacify: If Baby uses a pacifier or soother, he 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 him a certain amount of control over the process – by letting him choose the flavor of the medication, or choose whether to have it before or after dinner, or by having him give his stuffed animals medicine before it’s his turn.

If Baby spits up when he 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 him another dose if Baby is having trouble keeping medication down. If he 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 his 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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