Medication - Refusal to Take  

This Care Guide Covers:

  • Your child refuses to take a medicine
  • Techniques for giving liquid medicines, pills and capsules

When to Call Your Doctor

Call Your Doctor Now (night or day) If
  • Your child looks or acts very sick
  • Refuses to take a prescription medicine. Using a good technique from Care Advice has not helped.
  • You think your child needs to be seen urgently
Call Your Doctor Within 24 Hours (between 9 am and 4 pm) If
  • You think your child needs to be seen, but not urgently
Call Your Doctor During Weekday Office Hours If
  • Refuses to take a non-prescription medicine advised by your child's doctor. Using a good technique from Care Advice has not helped.
  • You have other questions or concerns
Parent Care at Home If
  • Prescription liquid medicine and your child refuses to take it
  • Non-prescription liquid medicine and your child refuses to take it
  • Techniques for giving liquid medicine to cooperative child
  • Techniques for giving pills or capsules
Causes & Health Information

Wrong Technique For Giving Medicine Can Cause Vomiting

  • Forcing a struggling child to take any medicine can lead to vomiting or choking.
  • Using a better technique can sometimes get rid of the child's resistance.
  • Doctors can sometimes replace a bad-tasting antibiotic with a better-tasting one. Another option might be to give an antibiotic in a shot.
  • Most non-prescription medicines are not needed and can be stopped.

Good Technique for Giving Liquid Medicine

  • Equipment: Plastic medication syringe or dropper (not a spoon)
  • Child’s position: Sitting up (Never lying down)
  • Place the syringe beyond the teeth or gumline. Some young children become cooperative if you let them hold the syringe. Have them place it in their own mouth. Then all you have to do is push the plunger.
  • Goal: Slowly drip or pour the medicine onto the back of the tongue. You can also aim for the pouch inside the cheek.
  • Do not squirt the medicine into the back of the throat. (Reason: Can enter windpipe and cause choking.)

If Your Child Does Not Cooperate: More Techniques For Giving Liquid Medicine

  • Caution: Never use this technique if the medicine is not needed.
  • If your child will not cooperate, you will often need 2 adults.
  • One adult will hold the child sitting on their lap. Their hands will hold the child’s hands and head to keep from moving.
  • The other adult will give the medicine using the technique below:
  • You must have a medication syringe. You can get one at a pharmacy without a prescription.
  • Use one hand to hold the syringe. Use the other to open your child’s mouth.
  • Open your child’s mouth by pushing down on the chin. You can also run your finger inside the cheek and push down on the lower jaw. 
  • Insert the syringe between the teeth. Drip the medicine onto the back of the tongue.
  • Keep the mouth closed until your child swallows. Gravity can help if you have your child in an upright position. Caution: Swallowing cannot occur if the head is bent backward.
  • Afterward, say: "I’m sorry we had to hold you.  If you help next time, we won’t have to."
  • Give your child a hug. Also, use other positive rewards (treat, special DVD or stickers).
CARE ADVICE FOR MEDICATION REFUSAL

Prescription Liquid Medicine and Your Child Refuses To Take It
  1. What You Should Know:
    • Young children don't understand the importance of taking a medicine.
    • Good technique can make a big difference.
    • Here is some care advice that should help.
  2. Sweeteners For Medicines That Taste Bad:
    • Most liquid medicines have a good or at least acceptable flavor.
    • If your child complains about the taste, your job is to mask it.
    • Mix the dose of medicine with a strong-sweet flavor. You can try chocolate syrup, strawberry syrup, or any pancake syrup. You can also use Kool-Aid powder.
    • Medicines can safely be mixed with any flavor your child likes.
    • Also, have a glass of your child's favorite drink ready to rinse the mouth.
    • Tip: Coating the taste buds with the sweetener first may also hide the taste.
  3. Good Technique for Giving Liquid Medicine:
    • Equipment: Plastic medication syringe or dropper (not a spoon)
    • Child's position: Sitting up (Never lying down)
    • Place the syringe beyond the teeth or gumline. Some young children become cooperative if you let them hold the syringe. Have them place it in their own mouth. Then all you have to do is push the plunger.
    • Goal: Slowly drip or pour the medicine onto the back of the tongue. You can also aim for the pouch inside the cheek.
    • Do not squirt medicine into the back of the throat. Reason: Can enter windpipe and cause choking.
  4. If Child Does Not Cooperate - More Techniques for Giving Liquid Medicine:
    • Caution: Never use this technique if the medicine is not needed.
    • If your child will not cooperate, you will often need 2 adults.
    • One adult will hold the child sitting on their lap. Their hands will hold the child's hands and head to keep from moving.
    • The other adult will give the medicine using the technique below:
    • You must have a medication syringe. You can get one at a pharmacy without a prescription.
    • Use one hand to hold the syringe. Use the other to open your child's mouth.
    • Open your child's mouth by pushing down on the chin. You can also run your finger inside the cheek and push down on the lower jaw.
    • Insert the syringe between the teeth. Drip the medicine onto the back of the tongue.
    • Keep the mouth closed until your child swallows. Gravity can help if you have your child in an upright position. Caution: Swallowing cannot occur if the head is bent backward.
    • Afterward, say: "I'm sorry we had to hold you. If you help next time, we won't have to."
    • Give your child a hug. Also, use other positive rewards (treat, special DVD or stickers).
  5. Call Your Doctor If:
    • You can't get your child to take the medicine
    • Your child becomes worse
Non-prescription Liquid Medicine and Your Child Refuses To Take It
  1. What You Should Know:
    • Most non-prescription medicines are not needed.
    • Examples of these non-essential medicines are most cough and cold medicines. Fever medicines are also not essential for most fevers.
    • Never try to force your child to take a medicine that is not needed.
    • Most often, symptoms can be helped with other types of treatment. See the specific topic that covers your child's main symptom for other treatment options.
  2. Fever:
    • Fevers over 102° F (39° C) that cause discomfort can be treated with acetaminophen suppositories. The rectal dose is the same as the dose given by mouth.
    • Other options: If your child spits out or refuses ibuprofen, try oral acetaminophen (Tylenol). You can also try a different flavor or brand of the medicine. Other flavors or brands may taste better. If your child is old enough, you might also try chewable tablets. They may taste better than the liquid.
    • For ALL fevers: Keep your child well hydrated. Give lots of cold fluids.
    • For babies, dress lightly. Don't wrap in too many blankets. Reason: Can make the fever higher.
  3. Good Technique for Giving Liquid Medicine:
    • Equipment: Plastic medication syringe or dropper (not a spoon)
    • Child's position: Sitting up (Never lying down)
    • Place the syringe beyond the teeth or gumline. Some young children become cooperative if you let them hold the syringe. Have them place it in their own mouth. Then all you have to do is push the plunger.
    • Goal: Slowly drip or pour the medicine onto the back of the tongue. You can also aim for the pouch inside the cheek.
    • Do not squirt medicine into the back of the throat. Reason: Can enter windpipe and cause choking.
  4. Call Your Doctor If:
    • Your child becomes worse
Techniques for Giving Liquid Medicine to Cooperative Child
  1. Sweeteners For Medicines That Taste Bad:
    • Most liquid medicines have a good or at least acceptable flavor.
    • If your child complains about the taste, your job is to mask it.
    • Mix the dose of medicine with a strong-sweet flavor. You can try chocolate syrup, strawberry syrup, or any pancake syrup. You can also use Kool-Aid powder.
    • Medicines can safely be mixed with any flavor your child likes.
    • Also, have a glass of your child's favorite drink ready to rinse the mouth.
    • Tip: Coating the taste buds with the sweetener first may also hide the taste.
  2. Good Technique for Giving Liquid Medicine:
    • Equipment: Plastic medication syringe or dropper (not a spoon)
    • Child's position: Sitting up (Never lying down)
    • Place the syringe beyond the teeth or gumline. Some young children become cooperative if you let them hold the syringe. Have them place it in their own mouth. Then all you have to do is push the plunger.
    • Goal: Slowly drip or pour the medicine onto the back of the tongue. You can also aim for the pouch inside the cheek.
    • Do not squirt medicine into the back of the throat. Reason: Can enter windpipe and cause choking.
  3. Call Your Doctor If:
    • You have other questions or concerns
Techniques for Giving Pills or Capsules
  1. What You Should Know:
    • Many children have trouble swallowing pills or capsules.
    • Fortunately, most medicines also come in a liquid form.
    • Call your child's doctor if you aren't successful with these tips for swallowing pills. Ask about the possibility of a liquid or chewable form of the medicine.
  2. Techniques for Swallowing Pills or Capsules:
    • Place the pill or capsule far back on the tongue. Then have your child quickly drink water or a favorite fluid. Have your child focus on the liquid and swallow large amounts at a time. The pill will disappear from the mouth.
    • Keep the head in a neutral or slightly bent forward position. It's difficult to swallow if the head is bent backward.
    • Drinking quickly through a straw can also help.
  3. Split or Crush Pills:
    • For easier swallowing, one approach is to split the pill into halves or quarters.
    • Another approach is to convert the pill to a powder. Crush the pill between two spoons. Crushing is made easier by wetting the pill with a few drops of water. Let it soften for 5 minutes.
    • Mix the crushed pill with a pancake syrup, chocolate syrup, or yogurt. You can also use any sweet food that doesn't require any chewing.
    • Note: You can do this with most pills. However, don't do this with slow-release or enteric-coated pills. Check with your doctor if you are unsure what you can do.
  4. Capsules:
    • Slow-release capsules can be emptied. Just make sure the contents are swallowed without chewing.
    • These capsules often contain medicines with a bitter taste. So, the contents need to be mixed with a sweet food. Applesauce or yogurt may work.
  5. Prevention Through Practice:
    • If your child is over age 8 and unable to swallow pills, he should practice. Practice this skill when he's not sick or cranky. (Note: Some children can't swallow pills until age 10)
    • Start with small pieces of candy or ice and progress to M&M's. Try to use substances that will melt quickly if they get stuck. If necessary, coat them with butter first.
    • Once candy pellets are mastered, pills can often be managed as well.
  6. Call Your Doctor If:
    • Your child can't take the medicine after trying these good techniques
    • Your child becomes worse

And remember, contact your doctor if your child develops any of the "Call Your Doctor" symptoms.
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Disclaimer: This information is not intended be a substitute for professional medical advice. It is provided for educational purposes only. You assume full responsibility for how you choose to use this information.


Author and Senior Reviewer: Barton D. Schmitt, M.D.

Last Reviewed: 9/1/2012

Last Revised: 1/13/2013

Content Set: Child Symptom Checker

Copyright 1994-2012 Barton D. Schmitt, M.D.