Is hiding medicine in your child’s food wrong?

“Is hiding medicine in your child’s food wrong?”

Surely by now we must have the technology to make medications taste palatable for children?!

Is hiding medicine in your child’s food wrong? It depends. Is the child fearful of taking medicine because of previously being forced to take medicine? Does the child have an objection to taking it because it is known to cause cancer or something? Or is this question being asked because the child dislikes the taste of the medicine but otherwise has no objections to taking it?

Would you like it if someone hid your own medicine in food? In general, I would not, though I can just about imagine scenarios in which I might. What does the child want?

If your child is not currently taking any medication, you might want to raise this issue with her now, explaining all the considerations as best you can given her ability to understand them, and discuss it. She might well like the idea of your carefully hiding her yukky-tasting medicine in food and not want you to tell her. Or she might prefer to know despite the increased risk that she might detect the medicine.

If your child objects to the taste of the medicine but otherwise has no objection to it, she might be quite happy with the idea of the medicine being hidden in a spoonful of strongly-flavoured hot curry. If it is the taste that she objects to, and you address that problem adequately, you have solved the problem.

If it is the sickly artificial cherry flavour of some medicine from my own childhood, then putting it in an intensely-flavoured fruit smoothie made with lots of ice might well help. That is what I would probably do for myself now if there were no other flavour option, and no other form available. If that failed, I would ice my mouth then hold my nose to take it. And have a spoonful of vindaloo or some strong coffee ready to obliterate the aftertaste.

The trouble is that hiding medicine (especially bitter pills and the contents of capsules) in food often does not work at all, and it can be even worse than just taking the medicine in the normal way. (BTW, do check with your doctor that it is OK to open the capsules – in some cases that would not be good.) To this day, more than 50 years after my mother tried masking the task of a disgusting medicine with honey, I still have an aversion to the kind of honey she used. I can’t even imagine how distressing it would have been had my mother not even told me that that was what she was doing. Perhaps if the medicine is in tablet form and the child is able to swallow mouthfuls of some kind of sturdy mousse or pudding or ice cream, you could suggest to the child that maybe it might make it easier to swallow if it is in a spoonful of that? Or in Marmite?!

Another option might be to give the medicine when the child is (half) asleep. However, to do this safely, you do need to know what you are doing. Be sure to get a medical doctor to show you exactly what to do before doing this. And again, talk to your child about this kind of thing before this issue ever arises so that you can honour the child’s own wishes in this regard.

It is worth asking your doctor if there is a different flavour option or a different form of the medicine or a different medicine that would also work, that could be prescribed instead. If there is no option, is there another possibility? Injection? Drip? What are the risks of the child not getting the medicine? Can anything else be done? We have found a number of amazing doctors willing to come up with creative alternatives in the event that we wanted a different option. Sometimes it is just a matter of asking.

In some countries you may have access to compounding pharmacists willing and able to produce medicine with a different flavour or in a different form that your child will find acceptable.

If you have not already made your child fearful of taking medicine by forcing her to take it in the past, it is vital that you never do that. The thing that turns taking medicine from something neutral or mildly unpleasant that you are willing to do to help you get better, to something terrifying and traumatic that you would rather die than do, is not actually the horrible taste of the medicine, it is the lack of control, the fear of being forced, the violation of your bodily integrity – which is a violation of your mental integrity, your agency. Something can feel fine if it is voluntary, but extremely traumatic if it is involuntary. And when you force someone, understand that that kind of thing often has disastrous unintended consequences, such as the person developing a lifelong irrational fear of taking tablets or going to the dentist.

When children know that they are in control of what happens to them, and that their lack of consent will be honoured scrupulously, they are just as willing and able to tolerate taking medications and having even painful medical or dental procedures as we adults are. This is true even of quite young children. Taking children seriously is far safer than not taking children seriously. Children who have reason to believe that their parents are not in the business of thwarting them and coercing them are far more likely to trust their parents when the chips are down and there is a need to take medicine or to undergo an urgent medical procedure.

When our child is sick and needing medication, or needing an emergency medical procedure, we are right there with our child, exuding calm confidence – a reassuring presence conveying that everything will be all right. We are not panicking and conveying to our child through our worried looks and anxious body language that the child is going to be distressed and traumatised if not scarred for life. (She might well believe us and get really really really scared! And then everything really will go wrong.)

And we are certainly not going to be giving the impression that we will ‘try’ the ‘voluntary’ approach, and if that ‘fails’, then we will ‘have to’ force it on her. That would be about  as voluntary as a man saying that he will ‘try’ the ‘voluntary’ approach and if that ‘fails’, then he will ‘have to’ force it on her – i.e., rape her.

See also:

Sarah Fitz-Claridge, Taking Children Seriously FAQ: ‘Is hiding medicine in your child’s food wrong?’,

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