I’m not swallowing that pill!

Teaching your child how to swallow a pill

A spoonful of sugar helping the medicine go down may have worked in the musical “Mary Poppins,” but it didn’t work for me. Some children as young as age 3 or 4 can swallow a pill, but as a child I flat-out refused. Sure choking was a fear, but mostly I didn’t see the need because liquid medication was usually an easy substitute. As I grew older, I learned out of necessity that my choices were either be sick or take a pill to get well. I eventually learned how, but perhaps if I had known some tricks I could have learned sooner.

Knowing how to swallow medication in pill form doesn’t come naturally — it’s a skill that must be learned. As with many things in life, the younger you learn, the easier it is. Studies have shown that children between ages 4 and 5 are able to learn how to swallow a pill more quickly than older children. Experts say that younger children are “pill naïve” and have fewer negative experiences associated with trying to swallow pills.

Don’t stress if your child struggles to swallow pills. Most children can be taught to overcome this obstacle to taking their medication without too much of a fuss. And it may be easier than you think. If your child is able to swallow chunky, textured foods such as oatmeal or applesauce without a problem, he or she can be taught to swallow a pill. Try the following creative ways to make it easier for your youngster to take his or her medication:

  • When your child is ready to try taking a pill with water or his or her favorite drink, make sure your child takes a big gulp to wash it down. Little sips will not do the trick.
  • If your child is worried that the pill will get stuck in his or her throat, you may be able to cut it, crush it or have your child chew it. Be sure to ask your child’s doctor first. Not all medications can be handled this way.
  • If your child is taking a medication capsule, try opening it and sprinkling the medication over food.
  • Mixing capsule contents or dissolving a pill in a pleasant-tasting liquid or soft food, such as applesauce or pudding, can help. Again, check with your child’s doctor first.
  • Try different head positions.
    • With a solid pill, have your child take a mouthful of water and then look up at the ceiling. Push the pill in through the corner of the mouth. Tell your child to swallow the water while he or she is looking up. The dense pill will go down first.
    • With a capsule, have your child take a mouthful of water and look down at the floor. Push in the capsule and tell him or her to swallow the water. The capsule will float to the back of the mouth and roll down the throat with the water.
  • Let your child have an ice pop before taking a pill. It will freeze the mouth just enough to keep your child from tasting the medication.
  • Try using lubricated, flavored throat spray to help the pill go down easily and prevent a bad taste.
  • Blow gently into your child’s nose, which will cause your child to automatically swallow. Be sure your child knows that you are going to do this and practice several times so he or she knows what to expect.
  • Relax. Take a few minutes before having your child swallow a pill and have him or her take several deep breaths. This can help loosen the throat muscles.

If your child is still struggling to swallow pills or certain foods, he or she may benefit from seeing a pediatric speech therapist. Speech therapists can help with issues related to biting, chewing or swallowing, as well as physiological health issues. Talk to your pediatrician or call a Norton Children’s Hospital speech therapists at (502) 893-1285 or at (502) 629-7185.


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