I received a question via our iPhone App from 16 year old Steffi. She writes: “I take 4 pills a day and can not swallow them! When I try, my tongue pushed the pill to the roof of my mouth. HELP!”
I am continually reminded about the number of kids and teens that don't swallow pills, and ask, "does that medication come as a liquid?" Even some of my "adult" patients (code for friends over 40) call and ask if their cholesterol lowering medication is available as a liquid as they just can't swallow a pill! These are people that can run companies!
So...due to that fact, I am convinced, like many things in life, the younger you learn to do something, the easier it is. The old adage, "can't teach an old dog new tricks" is true, young children are excited about trying new things and accomplishing milestones, so put pill swallowing on the list.
I started teaching my own children how to swallow pills when they were around four-years-old. It really came out of necessity when we were on a trip and one of them developed a fever and I did not have any liquid Tylenol with me. Being the novice "parent pediatrician" at the time, I thought I could just "push the pill down their throat", like the dog. Guess what? It doesn't work, as they just gagged and threw up all over me! Lesson learned.
I have found the best way to teach a younger child to swallow a pill is to make it a game. I took the boys to the nearest 7-Eleven where we bought their favorite tic-tacs (coated on the outside like a caplet so won't stick) and then let them pick their favorite sugary horrible never allowed drink. I think it was a Coke or 7-Up at the time (forbidden fruit at home).
We went home with candy and drinks in hand (mini M&M’s also work well) and began the tutorial. It helps to have a little friendly competition too. Show your child how to put the tic-tac on the back of their tongue (not on the tip) and then have them "GUZZLE" the drink. That is why you need to use their favorite drink so they really want to drink it robustly. You can't learn to swallow a pill with a small amount of liquid, you need a "big gulp" to wash it down.
When kids are younger they usually don't worry about "choking" or gagging, but once they are older they start analyzing and worrying about how the pill will get stuck or gag them and their anxiety gets in the way. Look at it like going down a slide for the first time, or jumping into the pool, younger kids are usually less fearful (not always a good thing).
For many children it will take several tries before the tic-tac is miraculously washed down!! They are so proud and excited and want to show you that they can do it again and again (therefore practice with candy and NOT real medication). By the time they are really becoming proficient they will often say, "look, I can do three at a time!!).
Once they are swallowing it is very easy to use junior strength Tylenol or Motrin, which are smaller and coated. Again, once they are swallowing pills the size of the pill really doesn't matter as they all "wash down" the same way. I use the analogy of learning to ride a bike, once you can do a two-wheeler, you can probably ride your friends bike that may have a little bigger tires, if need be. They all pedal the same way and require balance. Pills are pills, just pop and swallow!
I also jokingly tell all of my young patients that it is "Dr. Sue rule" that they are able to swallow a pill before they can drive a car!! Come on, putting a teen behind the wheel of a car is HUGE, and swallowing a pill seems much easier compared to learning to drive. I must say that the majority of my patients can swallow a pill by early elementary school, and many even younger.
Learning to swallow a pill is a right of passage during childhood. Make it fun and cross this off of the "to do list"!
That’s your daily dose, we’ll chat again tomorrow.