Why Children Get Carsick—and What to Do

Motion sickness is common, especially in children. But what causes it is only partly understood, and why some children have it and others do not is unknown.

Carsickness isn't really about the car. It's about the brain's ability to interpret a message based on what it senses. Normally, the eyes, ears, and joints all send signals to the brain, and the signals are similar, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. If you're traveling in a car, most body parts tell the brain: "We're moving forward."

But if the child is sitting too low to see through the window to the horizon or the child is looking down and reading at the same time, his brain is getting different messages. The part of the ear that controls balance and motion says, "We're moving," but the message from the eyes says, "We're sitting still and looking at a book!"

This leads to a sensory mismatch that overloads and confuses the brain, and nausea results. This can be a problem if your child is not looking out the windshield.

If your children are too young to express themselves, you can suspect carsickness if they become bad-tempered, sweaty, and pale, are restless, or begin to yawn frequently.

Here are several tips to prevent carsickness:

  • Stop frequently and at the first sign of symptoms. Before leaving home, give your child some crackers or other light snack. Avoid smoking or carrying any strong-smelling foods in the car.

  • Elevate your children (with approved child safety seats or booster seats) so that they can see the horizon through the windshield. Remember, though, that children under 2 years old need to be in rear-facing car seats (unless they have reached the highest weight or height allowed by the car seat manufacturer). 

  • Entertain young children with activities that keep them from looking down. Instead of using books, try CDs they like to listen to.

If your children get carsick, stop immediately and have them lie down until the dizziness passes. If they have vomited, offer cool water and a light snack when the nausea passes.

If carsickness is a regular problem, talk to your child's health care provider. If your child is older than 2, your health care provider may suggest an over-the-counter travel-sickness medication. Be sure to use the proper dosage for the child's age. Some of these medications cause sleepiness or even agitation. Always get advice from your health care provider and be careful when using them. Do not use a motion sickness patch because it contains too high a dosage for children.