“Are we there yet?” It’s the refrain of many road trips. The other refrain for some kids? “I’m going to throw up.” Motion sickness in children is pretty common and can feel hopeless in the moment. However, we can help our kids feel less queasy during car rides. Today’s article will cover what motion sickness means, why some kids experience it, and what we can do to help them.
In the interest of full disclosure, I am very prone to motion sickness myself, as are my children. The tips in today’s article are evidence-based and work for my family. Sometimes.
What is Motion Sickness?
Motion sickness is one way our body reacts to some kinds of motion. It can include nausea, belly discomfort, sweating, or (most well-known) vomiting. Some people even notice that they make more saliva during episodes. I usually think of the motion taking place in a car, plane, or on a boat. It can also happen with perceived motion, like a virtual reality experience. Some people experience a type of motion sickness with certain movies.
Why do kids get carsick?
Kids get “carsick” when there are mixed messages to the brain. For example, let’s imagine a child riding in a car. Their eyes (especially if the child is reading) perceive relative stillness. They may focus on an unmoving page. Their body is also pretty still, strapped into a car seat.
However, the motion-sensing part of the brain feels the movement and slight changes as the car speeds along. A little bump in the road. Slowing to accommodate traffic. A gentle leaning as the car goes around a turn.
The input doesn’t match up. For example, a child sees stillness and feels movement. The result for about a third of kids? Nausea and vomiting.
It’s worth remembering that blind people can get carsick too. This shows that for some kids, it’s more than just visual input that causes the mismatch. The part of our body responsible for balance and equilibrium also plays a role. As mentioned earlier, someone can be sitting still in their seat and yet their brain senses movement of the vehicle.
This is called the “sensory conflict hypothesis.”
Who is at risk for motion sickness?
Under the “right” circumstances, anyone can have motion sickness. However, some people are at a much higher risk. Like many conditions, genetics play a role. A big role. (This is beyond today’s article, but it’s an interesting topic). We have more information on adults, but it’s worth noting that people with migraines are also more prone to motion sickness.
For children, this means that if they have a family member who gets carsick, they are more likely to as well. The most common age for kids to experience motion sickness is roughly between 4-13. It’s possible to start at younger ages.
What can we do for children with motion sickness?
People have a lot to say about what cures motion sickness. A lot hasn’t been studied. So, allow me to start by saying that if you have something that works, please carry on! Most of the research we have is in adults, so we can extrapolate a bit, (with the exception of some medications).
Look at the horizon. Avoid “still” activities in the car.
This goes along with the “sensory conflict” theory about the brain trying to understand both motion and lack of motion at the same time. Kids can help their brain by trying to sync things up. This means looking out the window, trying to have the visual input match with the sensation of movement. Unfortunately, this also means no reading, drawing, or playing on a tablet during the ride.
For babies, this may translate to timing a trip with their usual sleeping time. Some infant car seats don’t provide great views out the window. (And yes, I say this with the full understanding that such a suggestion is often impractical).
Avoid travel on an empty stomach.
Maybe it seems counterintuitive, but many kids have fewer symptoms if they have a little something in their belly. Protein makes sense as it will digest more slowly. A kid will feel full longer.
There was one study in adults which showed that vitamin C helped with seasickness. This hasn’t been researched in children. However, the study crosses my mind when choosing a pre-trip snack for my kids.
The best evidence for treating motion sickness is just getting used to it! Also called “habituation,” it means that the more time people spend in moving vehicles, the more their body adapts. This is one theory as to why teens experience less motion sickness than younger kids. Perhaps their life experiences have helped them adapt. It seems that going more than a week or so between sickness-inducing activities makes the practice less helpful.
This information may not be so practical either, but my intention here is to be hopeful. If your children regularly get carsick: it may get better as they get older.
It may help to have car window open or a fan/air conditioning. Nausea and motion sickness are related to the body regulating its own temperature. We don’t need to keep a vehicle overly cold. A child should still feel comfortable.
Medications for Motion Sickness
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There are a few medication options for children with motion sickness. Here, I suggest talking with your child’s physician before using them. Many are available without a prescription. Most are for children over age 2 years. One commonly effective one is dimenhydrinate (one brand name: Dramamine). It’s an antihistamine, so it’s worth noting that some other common antihistamines used for allergies like cetirizine or loratadine (Zyrtec or Claritin) are in a different class. Zyrtec and Claritin do not help with motion sickness.
If approved by your child’s physician, it can be helpful to use medication if needed. There are side effects however, the most common being drowsiness. Depending on your trip, this may be okay! Also, I’d be remiss if I didn’t add a purely anecdotal observation. In my experience (with my own kids and talking with patients) an effective dose is often much lower than that printed on the package. It may be worth trying less than half the recommended dose at first. This could help prevent a child from being carsick while also minimizing the side effects.
What about alternative treatments?
People often ask about ginger and acupressure bands. The bands can be worn on the wrist. Although I’ve spoken with some kids who find them helpful, there’s not enough data to formally recommend them for children.
There’s some evidence that ginger helps adults prevent and treat motion sickness. I’ve not found equivalent research in children (and will update this post if I do). If your child is willing to try some ginger, it’s a pretty low risk option. Maybe it could be a good fit for some families.
Summary: Motion Sickness in Kids
While anyone can experience motion sickness, it’s most common in elementary school aged kids with a family history.
Because part of its cause is the conflicting messages from different sensing systems to the brain, it helps to sync those up as much as possible. Children can look out a window or sleep instead of reading in a moving car. Having a snack and a cool-enough vehicle may also help. Finally, your child’s pediatrician can recommend medication too, if needed.
Our goal is for happy travels for kids of all ages. I hope some of these tips can get you one step closer.
Maya M. Mahmood, D.O., F.A.A.P. is a board-certified pediatrician and mom. She is passionate about parents having evidence-based information to help their families be healthier. Subscribe to the newsletter or follow on social media @mayapeds.
Disclaimer: This contains no medical advice. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. This post may contain affiliate links. As an Amazon associate, I may earn a small commission on qualified purchases at no extra cost to you. Full disclaimer here.