2 simple ways to ensure you give your kids the right dose of medicine (lots of parents don’t)

Claire McCarthy, MD

Senior Faculty Editor, Harvard Health Publishing

Follow me on Twitter @drClaire

It’s a sad but true fact: parents screw up when they give liquid medication.

In a study just published in the journal Pediatrics, 85% of 2,110 parents made at least one dosing error in nine trials. Yes, that’s right: 85%. The majority of the errors (68%) were overdoses, with 21% giving more than twice the recommended dose of the medication.

Truly scary. People mess up in two ways: either literally measuring it wrong, or misunderstanding the instructions. Which is completely understandable, but the consequences can be dangerous.

Here are two simple ways to be sure that your child gets the right dose of a liquid medication:

Use a medication syringe. In the study, the researchers found that when parents used a dosing cup, they were four times more likely to make a mistake than if they used a syringe. Unfortunately, many medications come with a cup, which would seem to suggest that you should use it to measure out the liquid. The mistakes were more likely when the dose was small, but the cups can be confusing no matter what the dose.

Using spoons from the kitchen drawer isn’t the best idea either. You should definitely not use regular spoons, the kind you eat with; they literally come in all sorts of different sizes and it’s almost impossible to know how much you are giving. Measuring spoons are better, but you need to be very careful to fill them exactly — and then be sure that your child drinks the whole amount. Measuring spoons aren’t really designed for the mouths of children.

Medication syringes, on the other hand, are designed for giving medications. You can measure exactly, and you can be sure that all of it gets into your child’s mouth. While they are especially good for giving medicines to babies, they come in all sorts of sizes and work with older children too. You can usually get one from the pharmacist if your child is prescribed a liquid medication, and widely available to buy along with over-the-counter liquid medicines.

Make sure you understand the instructions. As obvious as this sounds, it’s easy to mess up — especially because different medications use different units of measurement. You might see “mL,” “milliliters,” “cc,” “teaspoon,” “tsp,” “tablespoon,” or “tbsp.” Many people get confused. So read it carefully, be sure you know how much you are supposed to give, and be sure that you know how to use whatever you are using to give the medication (hopefully a medication syringe). If you aren’t 100% sure, either ask the pharmacist (they can help with all medications, not just prescription ones) or call your doctor.

The most important point of this study is that the majority of parents make mistakes. We all like to think that we are smarter and will do things right, but 85% is a big number. So pick up some medication syringes, take the extra time to read and think, and ask questions. They are simple steps that can make all the difference.


  1. john

    I have yet been to a pharmacy that has not given me an oral syringe for the asking. A good no cost way to improve medication dosages

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