Learning to swallow pills is a skill, just like learning to ride a bike or write your name for the first time. While some kids pick it up very quickly, for most kids, it takes practice. On this week’s On Call for All Kids, Katie Grabowski, M.S., CCLS, a Child Life Education Specialist at Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital, offers parents skills to help their child learn to swallow a pill.
When should I start teaching this skill to my child?
On average, children ages 4 and up, or those who can easily follow directions, are able to start learning this skill.
What supplies will I need at home?
Since individuals should never take any more medication than is necessary for their bodies, we recommend helping kids learn this skill through purchasing candies of various sizes. Things like Sprinkles, Nerds, mini M&Ms, Tic Tacs, M&Ms, and Mike & Ikes can be very helpful. Alternatively, families are welcome to cut a piece of fruit (i.e. an apple) into various 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?
Encourage children 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.
What are some things to watch out for?
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.
If my child just isn’t ready to swallow pills, what are some alternatives?
Many medications can be crushed (or capsules opened) and then the medication added to a teaspoon of pudding/applesauce that can make it easier to swallow. Consult your pharmacist before doing so to ensure no adverse reactions.
On Call for All Kids is a weekly series featuring Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital experts. Visit HopkinsAllChildrens.org/Stories each Monday for the latest report. You also can explore advice for parents of infants and toddlers.