Why Some Kids Get Car Sick & How to Prevent It (Plus A Mess) From Happening

by Team Scary Mommy
Originally Published: 
Woman checking on child in car — car sickness kids.
Adene Sanchez/Getty Images

If you’re one of those lucky people who can read more than a brief text while you’re a passenger in a moving vehicle and not end up feeling like you’re going to puke your guts out, congratulations. It must be nice. Because as anyone who has experienced car sickness knows, it blows chunks. Sometimes literally. You’ve probably wondered (over and over again) how to prevent car sickness. Heck, you’ve probably Googled “how not to get car sick.” If you’ve been there, you know how bad it can be, how hard it is to get rid of, and how frustrating it is not to be able to travel in peace. And terrible as all of that is, there’s something worse than car sickness itself when you’re a parent: car sickness in kids. Because as awful as it makes you feel, the thought of your toddler enduring it is too much to handle.

As a parent, there is probably a long list of ailments that you really, really don’t want your kids to experience. For those of us who’ve dealt with motion sickness, it’s up there on that list. It may not be as big or scary as many other challenges we, as parents, face. But it can affect your life in ways that feel downright insidious. Road trips to visit the grandparents during the holidays? Not so fast. Even the carpool to school can quickly turn into a nightmare if your kid suffers from motion sickness.

So, here’s what to know about car sickness in kids — including how not to get car sick.

What causes car sickness in kids?

Though people frequently use the two terms interchangeably, car sickness is technically a type of motion sickness. “Motion sickness occurs when the brain receives conflicting information from the inner ears, eyes, and nerves in the joints and muscles,” Dr. Jay L. Hoecker of the Mayo Clinic explains. According to the Cleveland Clinic, approximately one-third of people experience car sickness or motion sickness at some point in their lives. However, it tends to impact kids between the ages of 2 and 12 and women of any age (of course) the most. It remains unclear as to why car sickness affects some children but not others.

So, what does that actually look like in the car? We’ll start with the littles and go from there.

Babies and Toddlers

Here’s a tiny bit of good news: Studies show that while infants and young toddlers can get car sickness, they’re less likely to be affected by it. Granted, infants spit up a lot, so that’ll probably happen regardless.

Young and Small Kids

According to Hoecker, children between the ages of 2 and 12 are most susceptible to car sickness. For this age range, the fact that they’re sitting low in the backseat of a vehicle (in the appropriate car seat or booster seat, of course) and can’t see out the window can trigger the telltale queasiness.

Older Kids and Adults

Those 12 and up, on the other hand, may feel car sick when reading a book or, if we’re being realistic, a phone or other device. In both scenarios, the car sick person’s inner ear will sense motion, but their brain and body won’t.

But if you’re someone who experiences car sickness yourself, you know that it’s also possible to feel like you’re going to lose your lunch in the car, even if you’re not reading. In this case, the person’s eyes see trees and buildings passing and register movement. The inner ears also sense movement. But because their body is sitting still — and their muscles and joints don’t sense movement — their brain senses a disconnect between the messages it’s receiving and triggers nausea and/or dizziness, per the Cleveland Clinic.

What are the symptoms of car sickness in kids?

Before the age of 6, the primary symptom kids experience is dizziness, along with the urge to lie down. Then there are a few years where children’s symptoms are a mixed bag, and by age 12, that unmistakable feeling of being sick to your stomach (aka, nausea) takes over, according to Seattle Children’s Hospital. For some children and adults, car sickness goes one step further: vomiting. So, if you have one of those (or are one yourself), it’s a good idea to keep some sort of receptacle around in your car at all times.

Also, if your kiddo isn’t able to let you know that they’re not feeling well, the University of Rochester Medical Center suggests keeping an eye out for the following signs:

  • Becoming (uncharacteristically) bad-tempered
  • Yawning frequently
  • Sweating
  • Pale skin
  • Restlessness

How can I prevent my child from getting car sick?

There are all sorts of tips, recommendations, home remedies, and dedicated products out there claiming to prevent motion sickness in children and adults. But do any of them actually work? Sadly, this is one of those situations where something that is an absolute lifesaver for one person does jack squat for another, so it requires some trial-and-error experimentation.

According to child health experts, some of the most common prevention strategies for car sickness in kids include:

  • Food: Make sure that if your child needs to eat something before getting in the car, it’s something light.
  • Air: Keep a window cracked or, if that’s not possible, turn on the air conditioning.
  • Eyes to the front: Encourage your child to look out the car’s front window (i.e., the windshield) instead of a side window.
  • Position: Have children ages 12 and up sit in the vehicle’s front seat, if possible. Put kids under 12 in the middle seat of the backseat (which naturally encourages them to look forward instead of to the side).
  • Media: This is the one time it’s a good idea to discourage your child from reading. But really, any screens (with TV shows, movies, games, etc.) are bad news for people with car sickness, so avoid those, too.
  • Fumes: Avoid exhaust or other fumes from passing vehicles (if possible).
  • Sleep: Encourage your kid to use the drive to Grandma’s for Thanksgiving to squeeze in some shut-eye. A sleeping child is not a car-sick child.
  • Sit up tall: For children who use front-facing car seats, pick one that also gives them a boost so they can see the horizon through the windshield.
  • Acupressure: Some adults find acupressure bands (like Sea-Bands) help prevent car sickness, and it’s worth a shot in kids, too. Put them on before the car trip begins, placing the pressure button over the center of the wrist, about ½ inch (1 cm) above the wrist crease.

What medicine helps with car sickness?

In addition to the prevention strategies we just discussed, there’s also medication — although that’s something you should discuss with your pediatrician before giving to your child. Chances are, they’ll tell you to try some/all of the methods above first and only turn to medication if nothing else works.

If you’re going that route, the two over-the-counter medications used most frequently to prevent motion sickness are dimenhydrinate (Dramamine) and diphenhydramine (Benadryl). Both should be taken an hour before the car trip, and according to instructions on the label regarding dosage, the Mayo Clinic’s Hoecker explains. And yes, there’s a decent chance that both types of medication may make your child sleepy (which might not be the worst thing…). Unfortunately, Hoecker says that non-drowsy antihistamines tend to be less effective at treating motion sickness.

What can you give a kid to stop car sickness?

If you’re someone who deals with car sickness yourself, you’ve probably heard (or, more accurately, been told) about all kinds of supposed car sickness “cures.” But when it comes to how to treat motion sickness in children, it’s another case of people finding some methods and remedies effective and others completely useless. Or, if you’re especially lucky, trying everything and realizing nothing works. But let’s be optimistic (we’re dealing with your child, after all) and assume something will work.

Health experts from leading children’s hospitals, including the Cleveland Clinic, suggest:

  • Stop: Tell your child to let you know when they’re feeling car sick, and then stop as soon as you can. Then have your kiddo either walk around a bit or lie on their back for a few minutes with their eyes closed. If you’re able to place a cool washcloth (or a makeshift version of one) on their forehead, even better.
  • Fluids: Have your child take small sips of clear fluids — ideally water.
  • Light snack: If you’ve stopped driving and your child is nauseated but agrees to eat a little something, giving them a few crackers (or something similarly bland) along with sips of water can help.

How long does car sickness last?

Again, this depends on the person, but usually, someone will stop feeling the effects of car sickness within four hours of no longer being in motion. And if you’re wondering if your car-sick child will grow up to be a car-sick adult, sadly, that is likely the case. Most people don’t outgrow motion sickness — although it may improve (or get worse) over time as you age. Bon voyage!

How do you clean throw up out of a car?

Unfortunately, some kids still get carsick, and don’t rush out of the car fast enough to barf. So, before you know it, you have a backseat full of puke. But no worries, getting vomit out of a car is easier than you think. Mix a solution of vinegar and water and wipe down the seats. This will cut the smell and serve as a disinfectant. But feel free to use store-bought cleaners too — just make sure to check the warning label and instructions on the bottle to ensure it’s suitable for the fabric in your car. While cleaning out the vomit, make sure the windows and doors are open to prevent yourself from feeling queazy. In this situation, you’re going to want to clean soon rather than later. Fresh vomit is easier to get rid of than hardened bile. It’s acidic, and the longer it’s left on your car seats, the more damage and discoloration it may cause.

Here are a few things you’ll need to rid your car of vomit quickly and thoroughly.

  • Rubber gloves
  • Something to scoop out the bile like a large spoon, magazine or large piece of cardboard
  • Garbage bags
  • Paper towels
  • Baking soda or coffee grounds to absorb the vomit
  • Soft-bristle brush or soft rag
  • Vacuum
  • Air freshener
  • A small steamer

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