Teaching Kids to Swallow Pills: What to Try and What Worked

help kids take pills cover

Recently, my son was prescribed a medication that only comes in pill form.
Up until now, on the rare times we needed medicine, we could get it in liquid form, which was pretty easy to take even if you needed to chase it down with something else.
As it turns out, as many as 40% of American adults have trouble swallowing pills so for kids the process for learning how to swallow a pill can be daunting and frustrating.

My son started off in that nervous state. He didn’t want to take it because of the fear of gagging and  he was afraid that once the outer coating was gone that it would taste bad (and he was right).
Eventually though, we ended up with about a 1,000 high fives and a very, very proud kid who swallowed the medicine with little trouble at all.

So, with a little trial and error I decided to pass my experience along to you.

Practice Makes perfect

Practicing with the actual medicine can get frustrating.  The coating on the pill disappears after just a few failed attempts and the taste can start to make kids gag or get tense.

Candy is not only way more fun, and you don’t have to worry about the bitter taste.

We started with the ever so small Worlds Smallest Jawbreakers and moved up in size.  The meds we needed to take are ever so slightly larger than a Tic Tac so we figured if he could get an M&M down, we’d be able to get the meds down.


Candy Pills with label 450x450

So, first things first, (and ignorant of how hard this was about to be) we tried the old fashioned way.

There are lots of methods for taking pills with water:

  • Capsules float, so swallowing the pill with a glass of water and leaning forward may help getting the capsule to float closer to the back of your throat.
  • Pills typically sink so tilting your head back when you swallow may help the water wash the pill down.
  • Pop bottle method – using a water bottle to help take the pill (example here)
  • Using a straw
  • Continuously drinking water until the pill goes down
  • Two sip method: taking a sip of water before putting the pill on your tongue and then a sip of water immediately after.

For those of us who have an easier time swallowing pills, it can be very difficult to explain the actual mechanics of it.  I found myself saying “you just swallow it”.
Helpful.  I know.

Needless to say, despite my wise words we had little success with water on day 1 and son retired to his bedroom with a slight stomach ache from too much water (then chocolate milk) and the adults took a break for a breather.

So, back to the drawing board.

Listen to Mary Poppins.

Day 2 we came a little more prepared.

Enter: Sugar.

Water we had found, wasn’t much help.  It was hard to gulp and didn’t do anything to hide the fact that there was a pill to be swallowed.

We decided our chasers had to be a little thicker and help mask the taste of the pill if we didn’t get it down on the first try.

What we used:

Chasers with labels

  • Whip Cream
    I don’t know a kid out there who isn’t tempted to pour whip cream straight into their mouths, so we thought this would be a good place to start. It also requires kids to tilt their heads back.   He got down the jaw breaker but it was mostly by accident, they’re really small and he had his head back pretty far.  It wasn’t effective with an M&M for him but the whip cream is definitely worth a try.
  • Pudding
    I suppose in the name of health, I’d be willing to give my son a nice big healthy dose of pudding on a daily basis.  He put the “pill” on his tongue with the pudding worked great with M&Ms.  We got three in a row.  He panicked when it came to the actual medicine but this method worked for the candy.
  • Jello
    After the pudding came really close, I thought we might need something a little more slippery.  We bought cups of Jello and it worked Every. Single. Time.  It did take 3 tries when we moved on to the actual pill but the Jello masked the taste of the pill pretty well and the slippery quality made it easy to swallow whole unlike the pudding which he could divide in to smaller bites.

Tips to remember:

  • Take a break. When things start getting negative, or emotional, it’s time to stop.  This is, of course, easier said than done.
  • Start small, then move up.  Smallest candy first (Nerds even, if you want to) before moving to the bigger stuff.
  • Visualization can help.  Before my son finally swallowed his medicine he looked at me and said “I’m pretending it’s just the tic-tac” and he did it.  Telling kids to imagine their throat is like a large cave might help too.
  • Let them do their thing.  Seriously, it’s hard to do something new with someone staring you down going “did you do it?”.  I may or may not have made this mistake on day one.

Each morning we do a tic-tack first with jello, and then the pill after three successes. The whole process didn’t start smoothly but now it’s a lot less scary for him and less stressful for me.


Have any great tips that I missed?
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