Just like a riding a bike, learning how to swallow a pill is a skill your child will eventually have to practice and learn as they get older. Around age 4, or when your child can easily follow directions, is the best time to start practicing this new skill.
What supplies will I need?
It’s important to start with a variety of sizes – this can be candies (i.e. sprinkles, M&M’s Tic Tacs etc.) or fruits (i.e. apples sliced into different sizes). This helps to represent the various sizes that medications come in and allows kids to find success with smaller candies/pills before advancing to a slightly larger size.
What is the process?
Start by encouraging your child to sit straight in a chair (not slouching, reclining) and have them practice taking three quick, continuous gulps of water. Doing so will form a continuous stream of liquid into their throats rather than them taking one sip at a time or filling their mouths with water and swallowing gradually. It is important for children to keep their head level and bring the water to their mouths rather than dropping their head to reach a cup. Drinking directly from a cup (rather than through a straw) is recommended.
Once children have mastered this, encourage them to put the smallest size candy onto the middle/back of the tongue and then repeat the process of taking three quick, continuous gulps of water. For many children, the candy will be swallowed on the first gulp of water, but the second and third gulp exist as a backup plan.
Caregivers can ensure that their child is taking three gulps through watching their child’s Adam’s apple and help a child to identify if he or she accidently is dropping the head when getting ready to sip. Parents can also check to see if children are inadvertently filing their mouths with water before swallowing, which will often cause the candy to move around in a child’s mouth rather than being easily swallowed.
What if my child isn’t ready to swallow pills?
Depending on the type of medication, you may also be able to crush the pill or open a capsule, and then add it to a teaspoon of pudding/applesauce that can make it easier to swallow. Be sure to consult your pharmacist or pediatrician before doing so to ensure no adverse reactions.
For more relevant pediatric healthcare information, visit HopkinsAllChildrens.org/Newsroom. You also can download our free Pocket Doc app, which features a symptom checker, parenting advice and other tools for staying in touch with us.
About Katie Grabowski, M.S., CCLS: Katie Grabowski is an inpatient certified child life specialist and education specialist in the Child Life department at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital. She joined the hospital staff in 2013. In her role, Grabowski works with patients in the neurosciences/surgical unit, serves as the coordinator of student programming and facilitates ongoing staff development and learning. Prior to joining the hospital, Grabowski served as an item writer on the Association of Child Life Professionals’ Child Life Certifying Committee, and assisted in conference planning for the Florida Association of Child Life Professionals. Grabowski earned a bachelor’s degree in Social Science Education from the University of Central Florida, followed by a master’s degree in Family and Consumer Sciences with a specialization in Child Life from Illinois State University.
*Presented by Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital