Why Children Get Carsick—And What to Do
Motion sickness is common, especially in children. But what causes it is only partly
understood, and why some children have it and others don’t is unknown.
Carsickness isn’t really about the car. It’s about the brain’s ability to interpret
a message based on what it senses. Normally, the eyes, ears, and joints all send signals
to the brain, and the signals are similar. If you’re traveling in a car, most body
parts tell the brain: “We’re moving forward.”
But if children are sitting too low to see through the window to the horizon or if
they are looking down and reading at the same time, their brain is getting different
messages. The part of the ear that controls balance and motion says, “We’re moving,”
but the message from the eyes says, “We’re sitting still and looking at a book!”
This leads to a sensory mismatch that overloads and confuses the brain. The result
is nausea. This can be a problem when children are not looking out the windshield.
If your children are too young to express themselves, you can suspect carsickness
if they become:
Begin to yawn frequently
Sweaty and pale
Here are some tips to prevent carsickness:
Stop frequently, and at the first sign of symptoms. Before leaving home, give children some
crackers or other light snack. Avoid smoking or carrying any strong-smelling foods
in the car.
Elevate your children (with approved child safety seats or booster seats) so that
they can see the horizon through the windshield. Remember, though, that children younger
than age 2 need to be in rear-facing car seats (unless they have reached the highest
weight or height allowed by the car seat manufacturer).
Entertain young children with activities that keep them from looking down. Instead
of using books, try playing music for them to listen to.
If your children get carsick, stop as soon as possible. Have them lie down until the
dizziness passes. If they have vomited, offer them cold water and a light snack when
the nausea passes.
If carsickness is a regular problem, talk with your healthcare provider. He or she
may suggest an over-the-counter travel sickness medicine for children older than age
2. Be sure to use the proper amount based on your children’s age. Some of these medicines
cause sleepiness or even agitation. Always get advice from your healthcare provider
and be careful when using them. Do not use a motion sickness patch because it contains
too high a dosage for children.