How to Get Your Toddler to Take Medicine Without a Fight

We know how stubborn toddlers can be. These simple, parent-tested tricks to getting little ones to take medicine can help.

Published July 28, 2023
toddler crying and refusing medicine

As the mom of two littles, I am quite familiar with the struggle of trying to figure out how to get a 2-year-old to take medicine. Funny thing is, I often have to remind my older son that bath water isn't for drinking, but he acts like that cherry-flavored Tylenol is the worst thing ever.

Thankfully, after some experimentation and various visits with our pediatrician, we figured out how to get toddlers to take medicine without a fight.

Why Do Babies & Toddlers Not Like to Take Medicine?

As annoying as it is to try to get your toddler to take a messy dose of pain medication or their prescribed antibiotic, there is actually a good reason for their resistance. It's a part of their basic biology! You see, before adolescence, your child has a heightened sensitivity to bitter tastes.

Even with the bubble gum and fruit flavors, they notice the sharp underlying flavor of these medications. Doctors note that this distaste for bitter things actually "protects them from ingesting poisons."

7 Effective Tips for Getting a Toddler to Take Medicine

toddler taking medicine

It's amazing how strong a toddler can be when they don't want to do something. Thankfully, there are some simple ways to get even a stubborn toddler to take medicine.

1. Help Them Understand the Need for Medicine

Before the struggle even begins, remove any distractions, get down on their level, and have a little chat about the importance of medicine when we are sick. Talk about how it is going to make them feel better. If they can articulate what is wrong, then use that!

For instance, if they told you their throat hurt, then let them know that if they take their medicine, their throat will feel better in a few days, but without the medicine it could hurt for a long time. This is also a fantastic time to talk about germs and how to keep ourselves and those we care about safe.

Need to Know

Parents also need to reiterate that medicine is ONLY for when we are sick and should ONLY be given by a doctor or our parents. Stress that they should never take medicine without permission. Shows like Lellobee and Little Baby Bum have great songs that share this information in a fun way and can help them understand why they need to take it.

2. Target Their Cheek, Not Their Tongue

Since your child's taste buds are a big part of the problem, the easiest solution is to administer the medicine away from their tongue and in the back of their cheek! This makes it easier for them to swallow it down, without the overwhelming flavor.

Need to Know

Don't squirt it directly into the back of their throat. This can cause them to choke and potentially throw up.

3. Always Use a Syringe

Once you upgrade to children's medications, they many times only provide you with a little cup. These, as well as spoons, bring the issue of flavor back into the mix. Instead, while you are at your local retail store, grocery, or pharmacy, pick up a syringe so that you can more effectively administer their medication!

4. Slow and Steady Wins the Race

Too much medication at one time can be overwhelming to a child. The intent should be to give them about a milliliter at a time. This helps them to swallow it down without the bitter flavor taking over their entire mouth. When you do this, let them know how many squirts to expect. For example, if they are getting 5 mL of Tylenol, tell them to expect five squirts and count each one as you give it.

Helpful Hack

Praise goes a long way with little kids. Each time they swallow, get excited! Let them know that you are proud of them and that they are doing a great job.

5. Add a Little Sweetness

Mary Poppins said it best -- a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down! If the flavor in the back of their cheek is still too much, consider taking a small cup and mixing a dose of their medication with a tiny amount of chocolate syrup or yogurt. The sweetness can help to mask the bitterness, making it more likely for the medicine to go down.

Parents can also let their child take a drink of something tasty in between squirts of medication. This can help to dull the bitterness and make the process more enticing.

6. Utilize Their Pacifier if They Still Take It

This is one of my favorite medicine hacks, especially for resistant babies or young kids still using pacifiers. When you administer a small amount of the medicine in their cheek, immediately pull out the syringe and pop in their pacifier as fast as you can. Then, tap on it lightly to call attention to the item. The pacifier triggers their sucking reflex, making them forget about the flavor. Repeat until the medicine is gone.

Quick Tip

While it can be done with one person, this method is most effective with two people. Have one parent hold the baby and have the pacifier at the ready and have the other parent give the medication. This ensures that the pacifier goes in as soon as possible.

Parents also have the option of buying a pacifier that is specifically designed to dispense medicine!

7. Offer a Reward

When you have to eat or drink something yucky, it is sometimes easier to swallow down when you know that there is something you get in return. For those extra stubborn kiddos, consider letting them have a small snack that is normally saved for special occasions or let them watch 30 minutes of their favorite show with a sweet drink like Pedialyte. This can also keep them hydrated, which is important when your child is sick.

Things to Remember When Trying to Get a Toddler to Take Medicine

child taking medicine

When it comes to figuring out how to get a toddler to take medicine, it is important to remember that the method that works best will differ from child to child. Here are some more quick tips on how to get an older baby or a 2-to-3-year old to take medicine if the previously mentioned techniques don't work, as well as some key safety tips to keep in mind.

  • Always keep your child upright -- taking medicine while lying down could cause them to choke.
  • Don't rush through the process. If you child is resisting, take a break and try again in a few minutes.
  • If one solution doesn't work, try another.
  • Talk to your pharmacist about alternate flavors that they can offer in the particular medication.
  • Ask your pharmacist if it is safe to keep the medications in the fridge:
  • Let your child have a say if flavors are an option. This can help to prevent a meltdown.

Patience & Partnership Can Help a Child Take Their Medicine

Having a sick child is hard enough, but when you add in the struggle of fighting them to take their medication, the whole experience can feel unbearable. The good news is that it doesn't have to be. However, if you and your partner find that all solutions have failed, consider talking to your pediatrician about alternative solutions. Many times antibiotic injections are available for your kids.

Just remember, like all the other hurdles that come with parenthood, this too shall pass. Be patient and know that this is a regular problem that parents face and it does get easier with time.

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How to Get Your Toddler to Take Medicine Without a Fight