How to Get Kids to Take Medicine

A teen taking her medicine.

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Since many kids cannot swallow capsules or simply refuse to take pills, it can sometimes be difficult to get a child to take their medicine. This can be a serious challenge when a kid has a chronic health condition that requires medication, such as depression or ADHD.

In order to find a solution for this problem, it is important to first understand the source of the problem. By figuring out why your child does not want to take their medication, you can then work on finding a solution.

This article discusses some of the reasons why kids may struggle to take their medication. It also explores some strategies you can use to make it easier for kids to take medicine.

Medication Tastes Bad

Sometimes the problem is simply that a child doesn't like the taste of their medicine. It might be a flavor they don't care for or medication with a strong or unpleasant taste. If this is the problem, you might start by talking to your child's doctor or pharmacist about possible solutions.

Pharmacists can sometimes add flavoring to liquid medicines to make the taste more palatable. The medicine may be available in different forms, such as a pill, gummy, powder, or even a wearable patch.

If it is safe to do so, crush the pill or open the capsule and mix with pudding, applesauce, yogurt, or another food. Do the same with liquid medications, such as adding them to chocolate syrup or whipped cream.

Certain medications should not be crushed or opened, and in fact, doing so can be dangerous. If you're not sure if your child's medication can be taken this way, consult your doctor.

You might also find it helpful to have the child suck on an ice cube or lick a popsicle before taking medicine to numb the tongue a little.

Difficulty Swallowing Pills

Many children cannot swallow pills until they are about ten years old. Some strategies can help a child learn to swallow pills:

  • Have your child drink through a straw while the pill is in their mouth. With this method, many kids concentrate on the straw and don't think about the medicine, so it goes down easily.
  • Put a spoonful of applesauce, yogurt, or pudding in their mouth along with the pill, and then have them swallow it all together.
  • Have your child chew on a piece of bread or a cookie and then put the pill in their mouth just before they would swallow it.
  • Put the pill under your child's tongue and then have them drink a glass of water.
  • Have your child practice swallowing smaller things first before moving on to a pill.
  • Put the pill on your child's tongue and then have them fill their mouth with water so that their cheeks are full and puff out. Then have them swish it all around and swallow it.
  • Use thicker liquids instead of plain water, such as milk or juice.
  • Keep your child's chin level instead of having them tilt their head back; some research suggests that leaning slightly forward can make swallowing medications easier.

Keep in mind that some kids are very resistant to swallowing pills and don't learn until they are teens. Others get tired of all of the workarounds they have to do to take their medicines and learn to swallow pills fairly early.

It is important to stay positive and praise children for their efforts to take their medicine or try to learn to swallow pills. Don’t punish them or turn the medicine into a punishment.

Medication Has Side Effects

Sometimes children may balk at taking their medication if it causes unpleasant or undesirable side effects. While many kids won't make the connection between their medication and these subsequent side effects, others may recognize that it upsets their stomachs or makes them sleepy. 

If this is the case, you should discuss the issue with your child's healthcare provider. These side effects may diminish over time. In other cases, your child may need a different dose or a different medication altogether.

Child Refuses Medication

Sometimes the problem isn't that a child can't swallow pills or doesn't like the taste; they just refuse to take them. There might be a variety of reasons why a child might refuse medications, but there are also strategies that you can use to overcome this issue. Steps you can take include:

  • Empower your child: Give your child a certain degree of control over their treatment. This might include letting them decide when (within reason, such as before vs. after breakfast), where (bathroom, kitchen, living room), and how (with what liquid/food) to take their medicine.
  • Use reward charts: Utilize positive reinforcement to encourage your child to take their medication. Try a sticker reward chart where your child gets a sticker each time they take their medication. After they fill up their chart, allow them to choose a reward that they desire.
  • Work with your child's healthcare provider: It may be helpful for your child to hear about the reasons why they are taking the medication and how they will benefit from it. Understanding how the medication works may also be reassuring.

If problems persist, work with your child's healthcare provider to come up with a solution. They may have other helpful solutions or they might be able to modify your child's medication plan.

Talk to your pediatrician if your child has been taking their medicine for a while and is now refusing. That is a separate issue from a newly diagnosed child who is simply having a hard time taking pills.

A Word From Verywell

If your child refuses to take medication, you can take steps that can help. Understanding why your child does not want to take their medicine is a good place to start. In addition to using strategies to help a child that is struggling, it is also important to ask for help if needed. Talk to your child's pediatrician for further advice and options that might help.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How do you get kids to take liquid medicine?

    Kids may struggle with liquid medicines because of the flavor or texture of the medicine. Talk to your pharmacist about possible solutions, such as mixing the medication with food or beverages or adding flavoring. Some medications should not be mixed with other substances, however, so always get the ok from your doctor or pharmacist before trying this.

  • How do you get kids with autism to take medicine?

    Children with autism may have more difficulty swallowing pills due to sensory-motor and coordination issues. They may also be very sensitive to tastes, smells, and textures, which can pose problems when taking liquid medications. Practicing with smaller food items or candies may help. Other strategies such as breaking the task into smaller steps, providing positive reinforcement for progress, and modeling the desired behavior can also be effective.

6 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Vincent Iannelli, MD
Vincent Iannelli, MD, is a board-certified pediatrician and fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics. Dr. Iannelli has cared for children for more than 20 years.