Car sickness in kids is like the world’s worst game of chance. Will my kids be able to enjoy backseat games without feeling dizzy? Will this book help entertain my toddler on the way to Grandma’s or make him throw up? You never know… until you know.
Why does motion sickness in kids occur?
Almost everyone has experienced motion sickness at some point in their life, which typically causes nausea, headaches, dizziness, drowsiness, malaise, and other unpleasant symptoms, according to a 2019 research review. It’s most often caused by low-frequency lateral and vertical motion—AKA, the backseat of cars, bumpy flights, boat rides—and can happen to anyone. Although, it’s more common in kids from 2 to 12, which could be in part due to “a still-developing vestibular system that is more susceptible to imbalance,” according to Elisa Song, MD, integrative pediatrician and pediatric functional medicine expert.
“Motion sickness can occur—whether your child is in a car, plane, boat or rollercoaster—when the balance system in your inner ear, called the vestibular system, senses movement that your other senses don’t,” Dr. Song tells Motherly. “Your child’s vestibular system feels the up-and-down or side-to-side movement, while their eyes tell them that they’re sitting still in the back of a car watching a movie, playing on their screen, or reading a book.”
Related: Here’s what to do when your baby hates the car
This disconnect is confusing to your brain, according to Dr. Song, which leads to feeling motion sick. “They feel nauseous. They may get pale and sweaty, get unusually quiet or fussy, feel dizzy, want to open the windows or feel cool air, have the desire to lay down or close their eyes, start to breathe a little faster, get restless, and, eventually, vomit,” she says.
For me, getting carsick usually starts with a slightly dizzying headache—and once it sticks its nausea-inducing claws in my stomach, I have to roll down a window, close my eyes, and even get out of the car in order to loosen its grip. My second-born son inherited this trait as well (sorry!), which I discovered when he was 2. Although, to be fair, I was thankful the projectile vomit happened after the six-hour flight to Hawaii and not during it (*cue impromptu baby wipe bath by baggage claim!*).
Since you can’t avoid bringing your kids in the car with you, the good news is there are proven ways to help curb their motion sickness if you prepare.
Related: Car seat safety guide: Tips, rules and product picks
11 expert tips on dealing with car sickness in kids
Like Dr. Song says, “The best way to relieve motion sickness is to prevent it in the first place.” So take note of these tips before you buckle up. (And don’t be afraid to stash some barf bags and emergency wipes in your trunk just in case.)
1. Encourage window gazing
Looking out the window can help one avoid feeling carsick. Dr. Song suggests making sure your child is “sitting as high up as they can” and has a clear view out the window. If the road is particularly twisty, try having your child look out at the horizon instead of down at a book or a screen.
Mehul Patel, MD, pediatrician with Children’s Memorial Hermann Pediatrics, recommends driving whenever traffic is minimal, if possible, “because smooth rides will be easier to handle [than stop-and-go].”
2. Choose seats with the least amount of motion
Choose seats with the least amount of motion to relieve sickness, according to Anthony Hudson, MD, pediatrician of the Children’s Hospital New Orleans.
“The lower deck and midship cabins of a ship,” Dr. Hudson tells Motherly. “And in a car, the front seat [for those 12 and older] while keeping one’s eyes on the road as if driving the car is recommended. In a plane, a seat over the front edge of the wing is best. If traveling by train or bus, forward facing seats are preferable.”
Dr. Patel says that “claustrophobia can make motion sickness worse,” so try to avoid squeezing too many people into a car at once.
And for grown-ups with motion sickness: “Driving the car is better than being the passenger, presumably because visual information is consistent with vestibular motion detection,” according to Dr. Hudson.
3. Keep things cool
Getting overheated can contribute to feeling more motion sickness, which BTW, can still happen in the winter.
“Keep windows down or cool air circulating in the car,” Dr. Song suggests. “Good ventilation can help reduce motion sickness-related nausea.”
If you feel like your child is getting too hot and feeling nauseous, Dr. Song recommends taking a break from the car as soon as you can “so that your child can get out in the fresh air and take some slow, deep breaths to reset their nausea.” She adds, “Little sips of cool water or a cool cloth on their forehead can be soothing as well.”
4. Drive during nap time
If your child gets motion sick easily, try to plan your long car rides during naptime or bedtime, as sleeping can help.
“Whenever possible, try to sleep in the car,” Dr. Patel advises.
5. Avoid screens or books in the car
Looking at a tablet or reading a book can make motion sickness worse because it requires the eyes to focus and can increase the sense of vertigo, explains Dr. Patel.
He suggests listening to music or an audiobook, as “sound does not usually affect motion sickness” or, again, sleeping. “Motion sickness results from confusion of the input from senses, so the fewer senses being used, the better,” he adds.
6. Eat a light meal
Sure, road trip snacks are fun, but they could make motion sickness worse. Dr. Song advises eating light before a long trip, adding, “Keeping your child’s stomach free of heavy, greasy or sugary foods will give their digestive tract a break so they’re less likely to feel nauseous.”
Related: What parents should know about febrile seizures in kids
7. Try peppermint and/or ginger
Put a little peppermint essential oil in your child’s tea or give them peppermint candy, which is “amazing for reducing nausea and stomach cramps that come along with motion sickness,” shares Dr. Song.
Dr. Hudson recommends giving your kids hard ginger candies to suck on if they “experience or anticipate experiencing symptoms of motion sickness.”
8. Apply acupressure
The acupressure point, Pericardium-6 (PC-6) has been found “to relieve nausea, vomiting and anxiety,” says Dr. Song. “It’s a very calming point, which is so important when you’re motion sick.”
To find this point, which is located above your child’s inner wrist crease between the two large tendons running down their forearm, Dr. Song suggests putting their second, third, and fourth fingers together. Then, you can roughly measure this width with your fingers and use that measurement to gauge the same distance down from their wrist crease to find where PC-6 is located. Then, use the flat pads of your fingers or thumbs to apply firm, yet gentle pressure for 1 to 5 minutes.
“Apply continuous pressure downward, or massage the point with small, slow circular movements while keeping your fingers firmly on the point,” Dr. Song explains. “As you apply pressure, focus on the point and breathe healing intentions into the point with every slow, deep inhale and exhale. Have your child take slow, deep breaths with you if they’d like.”
You can also get acupressure bands to slip on a child’s wrists to relieve symptoms.
9. Try homeopathic or regular medicine
“Medication management for some people is warranted,” Dr. Hudson says. “Medications such as scopolamine, which is applied as a small patch behind the ear, and antihistamines in children older than 2 years are often used for motion sickness.”
Dr. Song recommends Boiron’s MotionCalm tablets for kids 7 and older. These homeopathic pills are packed with natural ingredients to help relieve nausea, dizziness, upset stomach and vomiting. She suggests having your kid dissolve two tablets in their mouth the night before a “motion sickness-inducing trip” then taking every 2 to 3 hours before the trip, followed by every 15 to 20 minutes on the trip, as needed.
Of course, you should always consult with your child’s pediatrician before starting any new medication or supplement.
10. Take a deep breath
Sometimes, you can’t get out of the car or find relief in any other way. If you can, try to help your child slow down their breathing.
“Just slowing and calming the breath will help reduce nausea and anxiety associated with motion sickness,” says Dr. Song. “My favorite tools to teach kids are box breathing and belly breathing—both of which can improve not just motion sickness, but also stress, anxiety, insomnia, focus/attention, and so much more.”
Here are Dr. Song’s tips for both.
How to teach kids box breathing
- Imagine a square.
- And now imagine an amazing creature, any creature, at the bottom left corner of the square. Watch this creature move up one side of the square, then across the top of the square, down the right side of the square, and back across the bottom of the square to the beginning. Maybe it’s a cute little fish swimming around the square, or a hummingbird fluttering across, a bee buzzing around, or even a dinosaur stomping through.
- Inhale slowly through your nose to the count of 4 as your critter moves up one side of the square.
- Hold your breath to 4. Now hold your breath to the count of 4 as your critter moves across the top of the square.
- Exhale slowly through your mouth to the count of 4 as your critter moves down the other side of the square.
- Hold your breath to the count of 4 as your critter moves across the bottom of the square back to the beginning.
How to teach kids belly breathing
- Sit or lie comfortably.
- Place one hand on your chest.
- Place the other hand on your belly.
- Pretend there’s a balloon in your belly that you need to inflate as you slowly take a deep breath in and deflate fully as you slowly breathe out.
- Breathe in through your nose and fill that balloon to the count of 3, noticing the hand on your belly rise and the hand on your chest staying still. Hold that inhale for just a moment.
- Breathe out through your mouth to the count of 3, feeling the hand on your belly sink all the way down, while the hand on your chest remains still.
- Repeat this pattern for as long as you’d like.
Related: An overlooked tool in pregnancy and birth? Breathwork
11. Look for warning signs of something more serious
While treating your child’s motion sickness, keep an eye out that they didn’t develop any more serious symptoms.
“If your child has symptoms of motion sickness at times when they are not involved with a movement activity, particularly if they also have a headache, difficulty hearing, seeing, walking, talking, or if they stare off into space, tell your pediatrician,” says Dr. Hudson, as “these may be symptoms of problems other than motion sickness.”
Elisa Song, MD, integrative pediatrician and pediatric functional medicine expert.
Mehul Patel, MD, is a pediatrician with Children’s Memorial Hermann Pediatrics.
Anthony Hudson, MD, is a pediatrician with Children’s Hospital New Orleans.
Leung AK, Hon KL. Motion sickness: an overview. Drugs Context. 2019 Dec 13;8:2019-9-4. doi: 10.7573/dic.2019-9-4
Takov V, Tadi P. Motion Sickness. [Updated 2022 Jul 4]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2022 Jan-.