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mother helping daughter learn to swallow pills

Helping Children Learn to Swallow Pills When Necessary

Whether it's for an occasional antibiotic or a daily medication, knowing how to swallow pills can be helpful for both children and adults. Sometimes, both children and parents can struggle with this task.

I find that most people have trouble swallowing if they are anxious about it, so that is the beginning of the discussion with a parent and a child. If they are afraid of swallowing or if they're afraid of choking on the pill, then they won't want to even try it.

Throat and Neck Anatomy

I often go into a little bit of a description about throat and neck anatomy. Our throats are very flexible and there are muscles in the throat that help the pill go from the mouth to the stomach. I also talk about how most of the time we swallow larger things without any difficulty at all and so the throat is made to handle larger pieces of food. We don't even think about it most of the time. One of the things that parents have to accept is they have no control over what goes into their child and what comes out of a child. I usually will empower the child to decide when they're ready to try practicing swallowing pills because if we make them even more fearful, it will make the problem even worse.

How to Encourage Kids to Swallow Pills

I often will also set it up as a grown up task or a big kid task because most little kids want to be big kids, so if we make swallowing pills something that big kids do, then the little kids will want to learn how to do it at some point. I allow them to make that choice because it's going to be much easier if we don't fight with them about it.

What to Do If They Can't Swallow Pills?

We usually have liquids that we can use or other formats such as sprinklables or other products that can be used to assist a child with swallowing. Sometimes we can crush a pill or put it in pudding or applesauce, things like that. Other times you can't crush the pill and you’re limited in the type of medication that you can use depending on the format that it comes in. So I will often say, "we can switch to this pill once you learn to swallow pills."

Tips for Practicing

One of the other things that contributes to it's not wanting to try swallowing is pills that melt in their mouth and taste bad. And the trick for getting around that is to use small candies. You can get various sorts of small candies in various sizes (and I let a child pick the flavor or the type that's their favorite). It needs to be something kind of heavy; commonly we use something like Nerds or Tic Tacs or M&Ms so that if they hold them in their mouth a little bit as they're learning to practice swallowing it's not as unpleasant.

There are certain tips for actually swallowing. We usually want you to have a glass of water available right in front of them and there are various positions that make it easier or harder to swallow. So we often want to teach the child to try different positions of their head and neck. So you can either swallow with your head back and take a drink of water, you can take a drink of water and turn your head to the side (which seems to release the throat a little bit) or some people find that they swallow better when they drink and have their chin down. We usually just try practicing with something small and then moving to something bigger as they get better at it.

Originally Published: May 2019. Updated: January 2023.

CHI Health Behavioral Care Team
CHI Health Behavioral Care Team

These blogs were written by members of the CHI Health Behavioral Care team.

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