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Most Parents Give Kids The Wrong Doses Of Medications

More than 80 percent of parents make mistakes when measuring out their children’s medications, according to a new study. Researchers assessed 500 parents and found almost all made some dosing mistake and nearly one in three made a serious error. They also noted that, when parents were given clearly-marked dosing implements, they made fewer mistakes. The results suggest that safe dosing for kids may hinge on providing simpler measuring spoons.

“Giving a parent a dosing tool, like an oral syringe, that is the right size, can have a big impact on whether a parent will dose a medication accurately,” coauthor on the study Shonna Yin of New York University told MedPage Today. “If the tool is too large, parents are more likely to overdose. If the tool is too small to allow the parent to measure the full dose with a single measurement, then parents will need to use math skills to figure out how to accurately measure more than one instrument-full, which increases the likelihood of a dosing error.”

For the study, Yin and colleagues randomly assigned 491 parents of children under eight years old into one of four groups. One group received sham medicine with text and a pictogram explaining how to measure out the proper dose, and a measuring tool that was labeled to measure both milliliters and teaspoons. The other three groups received a less clear (but more realistic) variant—text but no pictures and a tool that only measures milliliters, for instance.

baby taking medicine with syringe

Yin and her team then asked each parent to follow the instructions on the label and measure out an appropriate dose of the sham medicine. If they were off by more than 20 percent, their mistake was flagged as an “error”. If they more than doubled the dose, their error was flagged as a “large error”. 83.5 percent of parents made an error; 29.3 percent made “large errors”.

Parents were least likely to mess up their doses when the measuring tool closely matched the dose on the label. For instance, when parents were asked to measure out a 2 mL dose, they made fewer errors when using a 5 mL syringe than a 10 mL syringe. Parents also appeared to be confused by syringes that had both milliliter and teaspoon labels on them, and performed worse than parents with mL-only tools, suggesting that more information isn’t always better.

Lin and colleagues recommend system-wide changes in how drug companies design medicine labels and measuring implements. But that in the meantime, how can parents be sure they aren’t misreading a label and putting their children at risk? In response to the study, Claire McCarthy of Harvard Health Publications listed several steps parents can take to stay safe. She recommends that parents use a medication syringe and not a spoon, learn the difference between milliliters and teaspoons, and get into the habit of double checking before dosing.

“Just take that extra moment and ask, ‘So exactly how much do I give?’,” she writes. “It takes less than a minute to do. If you make it a habit to ask every time, it could make all the difference—and help keep your child healthy and safe.”