How to Avoid Medication Mistakes With Your Kids

Updated 1/5/21

Just because your kids have a cough, sniffle or sneeze, doesn’t mean they need over-the-counter medication. Parents need to be careful not to make mistakes when it comes to giving their little ones medicine at home.

It’s natural for parents to feel nervous when their toddler or child is cranky and feels a little warm, and it can be tempting to hope that an over-the-counter fever reducer will solve everything. But you should be careful not to give your children medicines that they don’t actually need.

“We want parents to think twice before automatically giving their children over-the-counter medication like a liquid fever reducer when they think their child has a high temp,” said Stephanie M. Jernigan, MD, a Pediatric Nephrologist and Co-Chief of Medicine at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. “That’s because it’s easy to give a child too much medicine, and the consequences can be serious—even fatal.”

In the U.S., thousands of children visit emergency departments every year for problems related to medication reactions and errors in giving medicine at home.

Mom giving medicine safely to child

Many parents unwittingly give their kids the wrong dose of liquid medicine—in some cases, more than twice as much as instructed.

One study funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) found that more than 80% of parents made at least one dosing error when dispensing liquid medicines and that 68% of the errors were overdoses. The study also found that most errors occurred even when parents used a measuring cup. There were fewer errors when parents measured the dose with an oral syringe, the method recommended by doctors.

Reference the charts below to make sure you’re giving your child the right medication dosage.

Acetaminophen dosage
Child's weight Liquid (suspension*) Meltaways Junior meltaways
Lbs Kg 160 mg per 5mL 80 mg tablet 160 mg tablet
12-17 5.4-7.7 2.5 mL Do not use Do not use
18-23 8.1-10.4 3.75 mL Do not use Do not use
24-35 10.9-15.9 5 mL 2 tablets 1 tablet
36-47 16.3-21.3 7.5 mL 3 tablets 11/2 tablets
48-59 21.8-26.8 10 mL 4 tablets 2 tablets
60-71 27.2-32.3 12.5 mL 5 tablets 21/2 tablets
72-95 32.7-43.1 15 mL 6 tablets 3 tablets



Ibuprofen dosage
Child's weight Infant's drops Liquid (suspension*) Chewable tabs Junior chewable tabs
Lbs Kg 50 mg per 1.25 mL 100 mg per 5 mL 50 mg 100 mg
18-23 8.1-10.4 1.875 mL Do not use Do not use Do not use
24-35 10.9-15.9 2.5 mL 5 mL 2 tablets Do not use
36-47 16.3-21.3 Do not use 7.5 mL 3 tablets 11/2 tablets
48-59 21.8-26.8 Do not use 10 mL 4 tablets 2 tablets
60-71 27.2-32.3 Do not use 12.5 mL 5 tablets 21/2 tablets
72-95 32.7-43.1 Do not use 15 mL 6 tablets 3 tablets

Follow along to learn how to properly give your child medicine, making sure you’re giving her medication safely and accurately.

For over-the-counter medications:

  • Think twice. Before you reach for an over-the-counter medicine, make sure your child needs it. In many cases, medication isn’t needed for a quick recovery, especially with cases of the flu or a common cold. If you’re unsure whether your child’s symptoms need medication, it’s always best to check with her doctor.
  • Read the directions first. Follow the exact directions and dosage recommendations for weight—rather than age—printed on medication labels.
  • Check active ingredients. Read the active ingredients to avoid an accidental overdose. Don’t give a child acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil) when he is taking other medications that may also contain either. This includes over-the-counter cough and cold medicines.
  • Know the daily dose. Always ask your physician or pharmacist what the maximum daily dose is for your child (based on her age and weight). Over-the-counter cough and cold medication is not recommended for kids under 6 years old due to side effects.
  • Be patient. It may take 60 to 90 minutes for these medicines to work. The temperature may not return to normal, but it should get better, which will make your child feel more comfortable.
  • Check with your child's doctor. Acetaminophen should only be given to babies older than 3 months unless you have a doctor’s order. Ibuprofen should only be given to babies older than 6 months unless you have a doctor’s order.
  • Give children's medication only. Never give a child an adult version of a medication.
  • Check labels. Check the medication label for expiration dates. Expired medications can lose their strength and be harmful.
  • Follow the guidelines. Measure the dose out exactly using only medication syringes or the dispenser that came with the product. If your medication doesn’t come with a dosing device, ask the pharmacist for one. If you’re having trouble reading medication administration devices, you can always ask your nurse or pharmacist.
  • Be accurate. Never use kitchen spoons as substitutes—they’re not accurate.
  • Avoid these medicines. Never give a child aspirin or anything containing salicylates, especially when your child has a viral illness, unless it is specifically prescribed by your physician. Aspirin has been linked to Reye’s syndrome, a disease that can be fatal for kids.

It’s important to be extra cautious with prescription medications as well. Here’s what to look out for:

  • External factors matter. Make sure your pediatrician and pharmacist know your child’s weight, his allergies and all of the medicines he’s taking, including other prescriptions, over-the-counter medications, herbal products, vitamins, supplements or home remedies.
  • Contact your doctor. If you have any questions regarding your child’s medications, such as how much your child can take, drug interactions and food interactions, don’t hesitate to ask your physician or pharmacist and voice your concerns.
  • Understand the prescription. When your child’s doctor writes a prescription, make sure you can read it. If you can’t read the handwriting, your pharmacist might not be able to either.
  • Check labels. When you pick up your child’s medicine from the pharmacy, make sure the label lists the medication your doctor prescribed and the proper dose.
  • Ask about dosages. If you have a question about the dosage, always ask. For example, “Does ‘four doses daily’ mean every six hours around the clock or just during waking hours?”
  • Finish the prescription. If your doctor prescribes antibiotics, be sure you give your child the full course, even if he appears to be better. Stopping antibiotics mid-course can give lingering bacteria a chance to grow back, resulting in the need for even stronger antibiotics.

In addition to monitoring dosages, there are several things you can do around your home to keep a child safe.

Nearly 60,000 children are seen at emergency departments each year because they took a medicine they weren’t supposed to.* This may happen when a toddler figures out how to open a medicine cabinet in the bathroom or if a parent doesn’t explain medication dosages correctly to a caregiver.

A few things to be mindful of around the home:

  • Store medicine properly. Store all medication out of children’s sight and reach. In 86% of emergency department visits for medicine poisoning, a child took medicine belonging to a family member.
  • Reconsider where you keep your medicine. We often carry our medicine in purses or store it in nightstands, but kids can find them there. Place purses or bags out of reach, and avoid leaving medicine in or on a bedside table or dresser.
  • Be mindful of other products, too. Consider products you might not think of as medicine. Health products, such as vitamins, diaper rash creams, eye drops and even hand sanitizer can also be harmful to children.
  • Be clear with caregivers. They need to know what medication to give your child, how much to give her and when to give it to her. Using a medicine schedule can help communicate better with caregivers.
  • Know the number. Save the local poison control center help number in your cellphone.

Be sure to follow these guidelines the next time you fill a prescription for your child or pick up an over-the-counter medication, and don’t hesitate to ask for more information if you are even just a little bit unsure about what medicine is best for your child.

*Safe Kids Georgia, 2019

Rest assured we’re here for you if you need us.

At Children’s, safety is our top priority. We are working hard to protect our patients, families and staff. Whether you have an appointment or need to visit us for emergency care, we’ve put extra precautions in place to keep your family safe.

This content is general information and is not specific medical advice. Always consult with a doctor or healthcare provider if you have any questions or concerns about the health of a child. In case of an urgent concern or emergency, call 911 or go to the nearest emergency department right away. Some physicians and affiliated healthcare professionals on the Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta team are independent providers and are not our employees.