Tips to Avoid Car Sickness

Is your child prone to motion sickness? Before you plan your next family trip, read our guide to helping your little one manage the journey.
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My mom instincts failed me on a family vacation to the Blue Ridge Mountains in North Carolina. As we drove along the winding roads, I heard my then 8-year-old daughter, Sydney, mutter from the backseat that she wasn't feeling well. She's just tired, I thought. But after more complaining, I finally turned around. Her pale face said it all. I told my husband to pull over pronto, but it was too late. Clean up, middle row! Unfortunately, her sensitive stomach became an increasingly common problem when we traveled. During the next few months, Syd got nauseated on a bumpy airplane flight and at an amusement park.

Motion sickness can kick in at any age and may affect up to half of all kids at some point. Whether it happens in a car or a boat, on a plane or a Ferris wheel, the basic cause is the same. A child's eyes and inner ears sense how he's moving and transmit that information to the brain. Problems arise when there's an inconsistency between these incoming messages (what experts call a "sensory mismatch"), explains Richard F. Lewis, M.D., medical director of the Jenks Vestibular Diagnostic Laboratory at Massachusetts Eye and Ear, in Boston. For example, if your kid is watching TV on a plane during takeoff, his ears sense the motion but his eyes perceive that he's sitting still. When these conflicting signals collide, he may experience sweating, dizziness, a headache, and, in some cases, a wave of nausea that can lead to vomiting.

Some kids are bothered by almost any movement, while lucky ones have a high resistance and never feel ill. "We don't know why one kid gets nauseated on thrill rides but is fine in a car," says motion-sickness researcher Max Levine, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology at Siena College, in Loudonville, New York. It may be related to variations in the anatomy of a child's inner ear. Anxiety can also play a role: A kid is more likely to get sick if she had a bad experience on a past trip.

Of course, certain types of motion are more likely to affect kids than others. The slow rocking of a large boat isn't something many of us are used to, and it's a type of movement the inner ear doesn't sense well. Spinning rides at an amusement park (like teacups or the Scrambler) can certainly spur symptoms. A turbulence-free plane ride, by contrast, usually isn't problematic because the constant speed cuts out inner-ear signals.

Whether your child gets carsick depends on a number of factors, including your route, the length of the drive, and where in the car he's sitting (which affects his visual perception). Classic triggers: trips that involve frequent lane changes, twisty roads, or stop-and-go traffic.

Smoother Rides

Once you realize that your child is vulnerable to motion sickness, there are a number of steps you can take.

Work on Positioning
Place your child's car seat in the middle of the backseat so she has a clear view of the front window, suggests Elisha McCoy, M.D., assistant professor of internal medicine and pediatrics at Le Bonheur Children's Hospital, in Memphis. Tell her to lean her head back against the seat rather than letting it move around. If she's feeling disoriented on a ship, have her stare straight ahead at the horizon. On a theme-park ride where you can control the motion (such as how fast or which way the giant teacup spins), let your child direct the action. "When her brain has information about what motion to anticipate, it can override the sensory mismatch," says Dr. Lewis. That's why drivers rarely feel sick.

Avoid Screens
While digital devices that allow endless viewing of Frozen are practically required equipment in a family vehicle, experts say they're a no-no for kids prone to motion sickness. The images from movies and video games (particularly those with fast-moving graphics) create excessive visual stimulation that can confuse a kid's perception of motion and bring on symptoms. Reading may also cause a sensory disagreement, as a child's eyes are fixed while his ears detect the motion. You're better off letting your kid listen to audio books or an iPod, or playing low-tech games such as "I spy" or "Guess what animal I'm thinking of."

Time Your Trips Right
If possible, it's a good idea to schedule car rides to coincide with your child's naptime, since visual cues aren't sent to the brain when he's sleeping, notes Dr. Lewis. "We plan car travel for when our daughter Jo is most likely to drift off," says Maran Sheils, a mom of two in Portland, Oregon. Traveling after dark is another smart strategy, since it eliminates most of the visual signals. Otherwise, your best bet is to leave very early in the morning, which will improve your odds of avoiding traffic.

Think About What You Feed Your Kid
If she's prone to carsickness, you might be tempted to have her travel on an empty stomach. Don't. "Not eating makes a child's stomach more susceptible to an abnormal rhythm, which is linked to nausea," says Dr. Levine. While you don't want your kid to overeat, she should have some food in her system before you start your trip. Easy-to-digest meals and snacks that are high in protein (such as peanut butter on crackers or a grilled-chicken sandwich) tend to be best. End with a ginger-flavored cookie or candy, since this spice is believed to help soothe an upset stomach. Avoid foods with a strong odor. Make sure your kid drinks enough water to help avoid dehydration, which can also intensify nausea.

Watch for Symptoms
If your child says he's starting to feel sick, have him look out the window. Dr. Levine's research found that coaching your child to take a series of slow, deep breaths and aiming the A/C vent toward his face helps normalize the tummy's rhythm. If his nausea intensifies, pull over. Have him rest with his eyes closed until the symptoms fade. If he's feeling warm, remove extra layers of clothing and wipe his skin with a damp paper towel.

Try an Ounce of Prevention
There's mixed opinion about the effectiveness of acupressure wristbands, but kid-size ones may at the least have a placebo effect by easing your child's anxiety, notes Dr. McCoy. You can also ask your pediatrician about Dramamine for Kids. This nausea-preventing medicine is safe for children 2 and older, though it can cause serious drowsiness. If you're worried about arriving at your destination with a groggy child, use half the recommended dose for her age.

When all of these efforts fail and you're faced with a messy cleanup, take heart. Motion sickness usually tapers off by adolescence. I'm still waiting for that day. For now, I'm relieved that Sydney has decided to eat carefully on long rides and forgo the flying swings.

Recommended Remedies

Try this advice from parents who've conquered their kid's motion sickness.

- Take Breathers
"On long drives, we'll visit a rest stop or take a short walk. If my boys feel ill, I dab MotionEaze behind their ears. It contains natural oils, and the scent takes their mind off worrying about getting sick."
-Lori Bloomberg, mother of three; New York City

- Keep His Mouth Moving
"Chewing gum helps distract my son from carsickness -- or maybe he's less apt to vomit because he doesn't want to waste it. Either way, I always keep a big pack in the car."
-Nicole Sankowski, mother of two; Oak Park, Illinois

- Be Prepared
"I store disposable scented diaper sacks in the seat pocket. In case my son doesn't open one in time, I keep Biokleen Bac-Out Stain + Odor Remover handy."
-Gennifer Raney, mother of two; Charlotte, North Carolina

- Teach Them Two Tricks
"We used pocket fans for blowing cool air and acupressure wristbands. When we didn't have them on one trip, my son knew to roll down the window and press on his wrist. Crisis averted."
-Amy Baxter M.D., pediatrician and mother of three; Atlanta, Georgia

- Try This Sweet Solution
"We give our girls Queasy Pops, which are made with ingredients said to prevent nausea. And they work. When we substituted regular candy, they got sick."
-Darrin Sarto, father of two; West Hills, California

Learn the mistakes that parents most often make, and how to avoid them.

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