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Why Children Get Carsick—And What to Do

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:

  • Bad-tempered

  • Begin to yawn frequently

  • Sweaty and pale

  • Restless

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.

Reviewed Date: 02-01-2017

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Disclaimer: This information is not intended to substitute or replace the professional medical advice you receive from your child's physician. The content provided on this page is for informational purposes only, and was not designed to diagnose or treat a health problem or disease. Please consult your child's physician with any questions or concerns you may have regarding a medical condition.