It’s never an enjoyable car ride when a child is nauseous and throws up – for you or your child. Motion sickness is a type of nausea that can occur when traveling by car, boat, airplane, or other modes of transportation. Children commonly describe dizziness and nausea, which may be associated with vomiting, paleness, and sweating. Some children will also describe a headache or stomachache. Symptoms typically resolve after a few hours of stopping motion, but for some children, nausea can linger longer.
It’s helpful to clarify what causes motion sickness in children to better understand the management strategies to try. If you have a child with motion sickness, there are several approaches to managing it. The strategies to prevent motion sickness include environmental modifications, alternative therapies, and medications to help relieve symptoms.
What causes motion sickness in children?
The exact cause of motion sickness is not fully understood, but it’s thought to be a result of conflicting signals sent to the brain by the body’s sensory systems. The inner ear plays a significant role in motion sickness, as it detects the body’s position and movement in space. When a person is in motion, the inner ear sends signals to the brain that can conflict with other sensory signals, such as those from the eyes or skin.
For example, let’s consider car sickness. When you’re riding in a car, your inner ear detects you are moving, but your visual system is fixated on a book or iPad in the car. This conflict can cause the brain to become confused, leading to symptoms of motion sickness, such as nausea. This concept is really important to understand especially when we get into remedies and things to try for your child with motion sickness.
Motion sickness is rare in children less than 2 years of age, but doesn’t mean impossible. This is because toddlers typically start to experience that motion and visual disconnect, which contributes to nausea associated with motion sickness. It typically increases in prevalence with age, peaks around 9 years, and then decreases for most as they reach adulthood. There is also a genetic component – meaning, if one parent experiences motion sickness it’s more likely their child will too. Lastly, other factors that can contribute to motion sickness in children include anxiety, stress, medications, medical conditions, and a person’s susceptibility to nausea.
Top tips to manage motion sickness in children
The strategies to prevent motion sickness can be divided into three categories, which include environmental modifications, complementary and alternative treatments, and medications.
Controlling the environment is one approach to relieving motion sickness symptoms. It’s helpful to have your child look at the horizon or a distant stationary object. This can be difficult for young children. A few tips to keep in mind, try putting window clings on the front mirror or play a game of i-spy and pick objects in the distance. It’s best to avoid reading or screens because this can increase the conflict between their visual cues and sense of movement.
It’s important to consider seating arrangements to reduce motion sickness. In a boat, the lower deck and midship cabins are better choices for seating. In a plane, the best seats are over the front edge of the wing. In a car, the front seat is the best option for motion sickness; however, this is NOT a safe option for children under the age of 13 years. For younger children, the middle seat is often preferred, and if it’s a 3-row car, sit in the second row instead of the third. Overall, the general idea is the seating arrangement with the least amount of movement or bouncing is ideal.
For a few additional environmental tips from PedsDocTalk followers, check out this PedsDocTalk YouTube video.
Complementary and alternative treatments
Alternative treatments include the use of ginger and acupressure bands. For older children over the age of 5, hard ginger candies can be helpful in reducing motion sickness symptoms. It’s important to acknowledge the risk of choking on hard candies. Therefore, generally speaking, they should not be offered to children younger than 5 years; however, it’s important that you use your own judgment as each child is different. There is evidence to support that ginger reduced symptoms in people getting on a ship.
Sea bands were the most recommended intervention by PedsDocTalk Instagram followers. These are bands that are applied to both wrists to prevent symptoms but can also be worn after symptoms have started. They are a bracelet that has a button on them, which applies pressure at the P6 acupressure point on the inside of the wrist. It is effective in some, but not all research studies. There is very little risk with the use of sea bands, so it may be worth considering for children if age-appropriate.
Another simple tip for a child who follows commands is to have them close their eyes to remove the sensory confusion that can cause motion sickness.
When avoiding screens or reading, looking into the distance, or other above recommendations have been tried without success, it’s best to stop as soon as safely possible to let your child get out and walk around. If you’re on a long car trip, you may have to make frequent stops.
Here are some other tips for motion sickness that are backed by PedsDocTalk Instagram followers!
- Increase the airflow – with open windows, vents, or a handheld fan
- Keep the car at a cooler temperature
- Try to plan longer drives for when children are sleeping. Generally, this is appropriate since motion sickness impacts older toddlers and not newborns or infants (it’s important to check in on newborns/infants when they’re sleeping in a car seat)
Finally, not a tip to prevent motion sickness, but it’s helpful to have supplies ready in case vomiting does occur. Try to teach your child to use a vomit bag so they’re familiar with using it if needed. Also, have cleaning supplies and a change of clothes in the car. This preparation can reduce the stress for everyone.
If you’ve tried the conservative measures previously mentioned and the motion sickness symptoms continue, it’s worth considering the use of medication.
For commonly used medication to treat motion sickness in children, watch this PedsDocTalk YouTube video.
When should you See your child’s clinician?
When you have tried all the appropriate strategies for your child and the motion sickness symptoms are not improving, it’s best to discuss and collaborate with your child’s clinician. Additionally, if you notice your child is experiencing symptoms, such as dizziness or vomiting outside of traveling, this is important to discuss with their clinician too. It’s important to evaluate for other causes of dizziness and vomiting.