20 September 2017
At Westchester Health Pediatrics, we hear from a lot of our parents about car trips, and sometimes entire family vacations, ruined by their child’s car sickness. “What can we do?” they ask in exasperation. “Our child needs to go places and the car is the best way to get there.” As parents ourselves, we sympathize!
Car sickness is a type of motion sickness, and it occurs when the brain receives conflicting signals from the motion-sensing parts of the body: the inner ears, the eyes and nerves in the extremities. Under usual circumstances, all three areas respond to a perceived motion. But when the signals they receive and send are inconsistent—for example, when watching rapid motion on a movie screen, your eyes sense the motion but your inner ear and joints do not—the brain receives conflicting signals and activates a response that can literally cause you to be sick.
Car sickness is the most common form of motion sickness in children but it can also occur on a boat or plane when the motion is very intense, such as that caused by rough water or turbulent air. Stress, excitement and/or the fear of vomiting also can kick-start the scenario or make it worse.
It can also happen when a young child is sitting so low in the backseat of a car that he/she cannot see outside. The inner ear senses the motion but the eyes and joints do not, which often leads to car sickness.
Signs and symptoms of car sickness
Car sickness usually starts with a vague feeling of stomach upset (queasiness), dizziness, a cold sweat, fatigue and loss of appetite. This often progresses to vomiting.
A young child may not be able to describe queasiness, but will demonstrate it by becoming pale and restless, yawning and crying. As the motion sickness progresses, the child will lose interest in food (even favorite ones) and often vomit. This response can be made worse by previous car trips that made your child sick, but car sickness usually improves over time.
I don’t have motion sickness. Why does my child?
We don’t know why motion sickness happens more often in some children than others. Since many affected children experience occasional headaches years later, some researchers believe that motion sickness may be an early form of migraines.
5 things you can do to help your child deal with car sickness
If your child starts to develop the symptoms of motion sickness, the best approach is to stop the activity that is causing the problem, when possible. Obviously, on a bumpy plane, there’s not much you can do to stop the motion.
- If it occurs in the car, stop as soon as safely possible and let your child get out and walk around. If you are on a long car trip, you may have to make frequent short stops, but trust us, it will be worth it in the long run. If the condition develops on a swing or merry-go-round, stop the motion and take your child off the equipment.
- If your child has not eaten for three hours, give him/her a light snack before the trip. This also holds true for a boat or plane ride. The snack relieves hunger pangs, which seem to add to the symptoms.
- Try to focus your child’s attention on something other than the queasy feeling. Try listening to the radio, singing or talking.
- Have your child look at things outside the car, not at books or games. Playing the “license plate game” or some other activity that requires looking outside of the car often helps.
- Stop the car and have your child lie on his/her back for a few minutes with eyes closed. A cool cloth on the forehead also tends to lessen the symptoms.
There are medications that can help, too
If you are going on a trip (car, plane or boat) and your child has had motion sickness before, you may want to give him/her medication before you board to prevent problems. Some are available without a prescription, but ask your pediatrician before using them because they often cause side effects, such as drowsiness (when you get to your destination, your child might be too sleepy to enjoy it), dry mouth/nose or blurred vision.
When to call the pediatrician
If your child has symptoms of motion sickness when he/she is not involved with a movement activity—particularly accompanied by a headache or with difficulty hearing, seeing, walking or talking—tell your pediatrician about it. These may be symptoms of problems other than motion sickness.
Wondering what you can do about your child’s car sickness? Come see us, we can help.
If you’d like guidance for preventing, or at least dealing with, your child’s motion sickness, please make an appointment with Westchester Health Pediatrics. One of our pediatricians will examine your child to rule out any physical causes, listen to the symptoms, answer your questions and offer tips and advice so that hopefully, you and your child can actually enjoy taking trips without getting sick. Our #1 goal is to help you raise happy, healthy kids. Whenever, wherever you need us, we’re here for you.