The Wrong Way to Give Your Child Medicine

Plus, four ways to get it right—every time

child taking medicine

Parents who measure medication dosages in teaspoons or tablespoons are far more likely to make errors than those who use milliliters, says new research published in Pediatrics.

According to the study, about 40 percent of parents dole out incorrect dosages, and those who measure in teaspoons or tablespoons are twice as likely to make mistakes than those who measure in milliliters.

One reason: "Terms like 'teaspoon' and 'tablespoon' inadvertently endorse the use of kitchen spoons, which vary greatly in size and make it difficult for parents to measure their child's dose of medication accurately," says H. Shonna Yin, M.D., assistant professor of pediatrics and population health at New York University School of Medicine, and author of the study.

Part of the confusion may also stem from your doctor's or pharmacist's instructions. "Sometimes, different units of measurement, like milliliters, teaspoons, and tablespoons, are used interchangeably as part of the dosing instructions," says Dr. Yin. "But these are all very different quantities."

And using the wrong unit of measurement can have consequences. Confusing teaspoons and tablespoons can lead to three times the intended dose; while confusing milliliters and teaspoons can result in five times the prescribed amount. An overdose is extremely serious and can cause diarrhea, vomiting, seizures, breathing difficulties, internal bleeding, coma, and more.

The American Academy of Pediatrics, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Institute for Safe Medication Practices support the movement to use the milliliters as the single standard unit of measurement for all pediatric liquid medications. Until then, here's what you can do to ensure you pour the correct amount every time:

  • Ask your doctor or pharmacist to use milliliters when giving instructions about your child's dose.
  • Never use a kitchen spoon to dose medications.
  • Ask your doctor or pharmacist for a standardized dosing instrument, if you don't have one at home. (An oral syringe is considered the most accurate instrument for measuring medications.)
  • Before giving your child a medication, double check that your measurement matches what the instructions say.

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