Why Children Get Carsick -- and What to Do

Motion sickness is common, especially in children, but what happens in the body to make it occur is only partially understood, and why some children have it and others do not 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, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. If you're traveling in a car, most body parts tell the brain: "We're moving forward."

But if the child is sitting too low to see through the window to the horizon or the child is looking down and reading at the same time, his brain is getting different messages. The vestibular apparatus (balance and motion) of the ear says, "We're moving," but the message from the eyes says, "We're sitting still and looking at a book!"

"A sensory mismatch occurs," says Cheryl Hausman, M.D., a pediatrician in Philadelphia. This "sensory conflict" overloads and confuses the brain, and nausea occurs, she says.

"Toddlers and preschoolers are particularly vulnerable to carsickness because they are too small to see through the windshield," says Dr. Hausman.

If your children are too young to express themselves, you can suspect pending carsickness if they become sweaty and pale, are restless or begin to yawn frequently.

Here are several tips to prevent carsickness:

  • Stop frequently and at the first sign of symptoms. Before leaving home, give your child a cracker 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 infants under 12 months and under 20 pounds need to be in rear-facing car seats.

  • Distract young children with activities that keep them from looking downward. Instead of using books, provide a cassette player for them to listen to.

"If your children get carsick, stop immediately and have them lie down until the dizziness passes. If they have vomited, offer cool water and a light snack when they are over the nausea," Dr. Hausman says.

If carsickness is a regular problem, talk to your child's health care provider. If your child is older than 2, your health care provider may suggest an over-the-counter travel-sickness medication such as Dramamine. Be sure to use the proper dosage for the child's age. Some of these medications cause drowsiness, so be aware that the child may not be alert when you get to your destination. Do not use a motion sickness patch because it contains too high a dosage for children.


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