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Putting the Brakes on Car Sickness

Written by Kara Carter, M.D. on Jun 17, 2017, 8:45:00 AM

Does this sound familiar? You get your family into the car for a long trip. Things seem to be going pretty well until one of your children tells you their stomach hurts or they don’t feel well. Before you know it, they’ve broken into a cold sweat and the burger you fed them an hour ago is now all over the front of their outfit and the car. Your child probably has car sickness. While it’s a tough lesson the first time it happens, the good news is there are ways to prevent it in the future. 

Motion sickness is caused when your brain gets conflicting information from the parts of your body used to sense motion. For example, if your child is on a car ride that involves driving over hills and can’t see outside, the sensory portions of their inner ears are telling their brain that there is a specific motion, but that information is in direct conflict with their eyes, which are probably focused on the back seat and are not sensing any motion. In severe cases, some children might suffer from it almost every time you get them in the car. Others might never experience it. We’re not really sure what causes this, but there are some things to look out for and some preventive measures you can take.

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Symptoms and What to Do About Them

For many parents, the first time they realize their child has motion sickness is typically after the “sickness” part happens (this is why it’s never a bad idea to travel with extra clothes, towels and wipes if you’ll be in the car with your child for an extended period of time), but there are some obvious symptoms: 

  • Upset stomach or queasiness
  • Cold sweat
  • Feeling of being tired
  • Loss of appetite
  • Vomiting 

If you’re already at the vomiting stage, it’s clearly too late to do anything to prevent it, but if your child is able to tell you they think they’re going to be sick, stop the car immediately and have them walk around outside to get some air. You can also have them lie down on their back with a cool rag on their forehead. Make sure you’re providing them with plenty of ventilation as well, as that seems to help.

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Prevention Strategies

There isn’t a cure, per se, for car sickness, but if you know your child is prone to car sickness, here are steps I would recommend to help curb it: 

  • Have them look outside the car instead of looking at videos, books or games. This helps with those conflicting signals received by the brain.
  • Don’t feed them big, greasy or spicy meals before or during a long car trip. This is a recipe for disaster.
  • Make sure they have enough air.
  • Try medication. Talk to your doctor about what medication is right for your child at their age (usually 2 and older) to stop car sickness. Fair warning though: These medications usually cause drowsiness and grogginess. 


Dr. Kara Carter is a board-certified pediatrician at Kelsey-Seybold’s Katy Clinic in Richmond, Texas. She’s a breastfeeding advocate and her clinical interests revolve around preventive care for her patients.


Topics: carsickness, carsick, how to prevent motion sickness, car trips with kids

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