Ask a Top Doctor: How Can I Teach My Kid to Swallow Pills?

Answer from Top Doctor and pediatric specialist Harold Gordon of Bryn Mawr Hospital

Illustration by Justin Renninger

With the last great summer hurrah arriving this weekend, chances are you’re more concerned about your kids getting one last bad bout of sunburn or swimmer’s ear than strep throat or bronchitis. But if your child is among the 40 percent of Americans who has trouble swallowing pills, now is the perfect time to make sure little ones will be able to swallow a taste-free pill rather than that awful bubblegum-flavored liquid Amoxicillin should they get sick this season. We spoke to Top Doctor and pediatric specialist Harold Gordon of Bryn Mawr Hospital for tips on teaching your kids how to swallow pills — and why you should start today. — Maggie McGrath

Don’t wait until your child is sick.

“When you’re sick, it’s not the best time to practice swallowing,” says Gordon. “For instance, when you have strep throat, your tonsils are enlarged.” The last-thing first-time pill swallowers need is a physical barrier on top of the mental one.

Start small.
“Practice with something like a Tic-Tac,” says Gordon. Unlike other small candies like M&Ms that can get mushy or a Mike-n-Ike that’s on the larger side and could cause choking, “a Tic-Tac mimics a pill better.” It’s the right shape and won’t harm your child if you need to practice two or three times in one sitting. However, advises Gordon, be sure to stress to your kids that practicing with candy does not mean that medicines are candy.

Use mushy foods.
“Put the [pseudo] pill in something soft and mushy, like a banana or a marshmallow,” says Gordon. “Most people don’t chew bananas until they swallow—they take a bite and swallow a small chunk.” Practicing this way can help a child with the sensation of swallowing something that isn’t completely chewed.

Position the pill.
Instruct your child to place the pseudo pill on the back half of the tongue. From there, “take a gulp of water with your chin positioned slightly towards your chest, and as you swallow, bring your head upwards.” Thus, the head drop backs slightly and gravity helps your kid over the hump. If you end up having to deal with the real thing when your child is sick, place the pill long-ways rather than horizontal. “Place it front-to-back, in the direction it’s going,” says Gordon. Kids are going to have a harder time swallowing the pill if it’s placed side-to-side.

Don’t over-think it.
“There’s a choking fear,” says Gordon of the first pill-swallowing experience. Plus, “some kids do have a stronger gag reflex than others.” But to overcome these factors, the best thing a child can do is relax. “The kids who get over-focused on it and think about it too much aren’t going to be successful. You have to be casual about it.” Also know that the first time is usually the hardest. “Once they swallow that first pill,” he says, “they’ve got it made.”