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A Guide for Parents: The Best Ways to Give Medication to Children Safely

As a parent, it can be heartbreaking to see your child suffer from a cold, infection, headache, upset stomach or another illness. When your child isn’t feeling well, you want to do what you can to help. A lot of time, that can mean giving your child medicine.

But medication can be confusing. The dosage might be by weight or by age. You might not be sure whether you’re giving your child the right over-the-counter (OTC) medication for their condition. You may wonder how often you should give your child medicine or what warning signs to watch for. 

It’s important to be accurate when you’re giving medication to children, whether it’s prescription or OTC. A dose that’s too small won’t help them feel better, while a dose that’s too big could cause dangerous side effects.

Paul Thompson, PharmD, a pharmacist with Banner Health, shared tips that can help you keep your child safe when it comes to medication.

Make sure you understand your child’s condition 

Older children may be able to describe their symptoms to you. But babies and younger children can’t tell you what’s wrong. When your child is sick or in pain, it’s best to talk to your pediatrician or another health care provider. 

A provider can diagnose your child’s condition and recommend the right treatment. Even if you think you should give your child OTC medication, it’s a good idea to talk to an expert. 

A provider can also share details about how to give medicine safely. They can make sure your child won’t get any unnecessary treatment or take any medications that could interact with each other. You’ll have peace of mind knowing an expert is overseeing your child’s care.

Read the labels 

Medicine labels give you a lot of useful information:

  • The name of the medication 
  • The strength of the medication 
  • The dosage form (tablet, capsule, liquid, etc.) 
  • The dosage instructions 
  • The expiration date 
  • Any warnings or precautions 

Read the label to be sure you are giving your child the right medication, strength and dose. “The label will state the uses for the medication, but always ask your pharmacist to be sure you understand the treatment plan,” Dr. Thompson said.

Measure carefully

Measuring is key to making sure your child gets the right dose of medicine. “Use the proper measuring devices,” said Dr. Thompson. “Most children’s medication is liquid or chewable and the dosage is determined by their weight and age.” 

If the medication lists dosages based on both weight and age, give your child the dose based on their weight. That’s more accurate since kids who are the same age could weigh different amounts.

Weight requirements might be measured in kilograms (kg). If you don’t know your child’s weight in kilograms, you can divide your child’s weight in pounds by 2.2 to get their weight in kilograms (2.2 pounds = 1 kg).

For liquid medications, be sure to measure the dose with the cup or syringe that comes with the medicine. Don’t use kitchen spoons or household tools since they might not be accurate. If you don’t have the cup or syringe that came with the medication, ask for one at your pharmacy.

Give your child the medication correctly

These tips can help you make sure your child gets their medicine safely and accurately.

  • Be sure to wash your hands before you give your child medicine. 
  • For liquid medicines, shake the bottle before you measure out the dose. 
  • Read the warnings and precautions. That way, you’ll know whether your child should take the medicine with food or water and what interactions or side effects to watch for.
  • Check the expiration date and don’t give your child any expired medicine, whether it’s OTC or prescription medication. Dispose of medicines properly.
  • If your child is taking tablets or capsules, they should swallow them whole unless a health care provider says it’s OK to break or chew them. Breaking or chewing pills could change the way the medicine is delivered. If your child can’t swallow pills, ask your provider or pharmacist if the medicine is available in a liquid or other form.
  • Make sure you don’t give your child a bigger dose of medicine than they should get. And don’t give medicine more often than recommended. If medicine isn’t helping relieve your child’s symptoms, talk to a health care provider for other options. 
  • If your child refuses to take the medicine or spits it out, explain why they need it and make it fun — have them choose a favorite cup for a drink afterward or reward them with a sticker. If they still won’t take the medicine, talk to your pediatrician. You might be able to try a different medicine, format or flavor.
  • Never call medication “candy,” even if it’s sweet-flavored or you think your child will take it if they think it’s candy. If children think medication is candy, they might try to take more of it. 
  • If you miss a dose, ask a health care provider what to do. You usually don’t want to give your child a double dose. Your doctor may want you to give the next dose when you remember, or at the next scheduled time. 
  • Give your child all of the medication as directed. Don’t stop giving the medication if your child feels better unless a health care provider tells you it’s OK to do so.
  • Talk to a health care provider before giving your child more than one kind of medication. Different medicines could interact with each other. 
  • Be sure to keep track of when you’re giving your child medication. You may want to make a chart or set a schedule with your phone or calendar.
  • If you notice any side effects, talk to your child’s doctor, nurse or pharmacist. Some side effects are mild and go away on their own, but others can be serious. You may need to change to a different medication or stop giving the medication to your child.
  • Only use medication to treat what it’s supposed to treat. For example, don’t give your child Benadryl to make them sleepy for a long car ride or flight. If you need to keep your child calm and quiet, talk to your pediatrician about safe options. 
  • If you give your child any supplements or vitamins, check with your doctor. They could interact with other medications. 

Store medicine properly   

Be sure to store medication as directed. You’ll want to store most medicines in a cool, dark place. 

“Storing medication appropriately helps to ensure the intended response when taking the medication. Improper storage can lead to instability or contamination,” Dr. Thompson said.

Keep medications out of reach and sight of children. High cabinets with locks are often the best option. Children who find medication and take it could choke, poison themselves or overdose. 

“Many commonly used medications like OTC pain relievers and vitamins can be harmful or toxic when ingested in excessive quantities. It’s important to store all medications, even seemingly harmless ones, out of a child’s reach and follow proper dosing instructions to prevent accidental overdoses,” Dr. Thompson said.

Keep medication in the original containers, so you know what it is and can refer to the label. Don’t transfer medication with a child-resistant cap to a container that’s easier to open. 

Don’t leave medication on countertops or tables or in purses or backpacks. And teach children that they should never take medication without your permission.

“While child-resistant caps are designed to be difficult for young children to open, they are not entirely childproof,” Dr. Thompson said. “Some children, especially those with advanced motor skills or dexterity, may still be able to open these containers.”

If you think your child has taken too much medication or the wrong kind of medication, call (800) 222-1222 to connect to your local poison and drug information center. You can call the poison control center 24 hours a day. Save this number in your cell phone and post it next to any landlines. 

The bottom line

When your child is sick or hurt, they may need medication. It’s important to give them the medication accurately. That way, they get the benefits of the medicine with the lowest risk of side effects. 

If you have any questions about giving medicine to your child, don’t take a chance. Reach out to your pediatrician’s office or a Banner health care provider.

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