Why Babies Get Carsick—And How to Help Them

Mom buckling infant into car seat

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If your child vomits every time you take a drive, you know how disruptive carsickness can be to daily life. Motion sickness is most commonly seen in children 6-12 years old, but this phenomenon affects everyone to some extent. Even babies are not immune from the feeling.

Motion sickness happens when the brain receives conflicting messages about body movement and the environment you are in. Fortunately, there are a few things you can do to avoid the sensory incongruity that leads to nausea and vomiting. There are also ways treat the symptoms themselves when you can't prevent them from happening.

Here is what you need to know about helping a child cope with motion sickness, from a pediatrician and real parents.

What is Carsickness?

Carsickness is a type of motion sickness, which can occur in a car, on a boat, or in a plane. Since many people depend on driving as their daily mode of transportation, carsickness is a more frequent problem.

Motion sickness occurs when the signals that the eye sends to the brain conflict with the signals that the delicate bones in the ear send. "In a moving car, the brain feels conflicting signals of sitting still, yet the inner ear is processing movement. Sometimes, with too much or prolonged motion, some individuals can feel sensitive to the conflicting signals and feel what we describe as motion sickness," explains board-certified pediatrician Amna Husain, MD, IBCLC.

This leads to a variety of symptoms including tiredness, headache, dizziness, nausea, and vomiting.

Why Do Some Babies Get Carsick?

While it is not entirely clear why some babies get carsick and others don't, there are a few contributing factors that may affect children specifically.

First of all, facing backward in a car seat can increase the disconnect between visual signals and balance signals from the ears. Even after switching to front-facing, little ones often sit too low to see the horizon when looking out of the window. Staring at a fixed point can often help the brain better process the signals it is getting.

Sitting in the backseat also makes it difficult to look out the front window, which gives the most accurate visual representation of the car's movement. On top of that, kids often keep busy on long drives by looking down at books, tablets, or toys.

There is a genetic component to carsickness as well. So if you suffered from motion sickness in your youth, it is more likely that your children will too.

Preventing Carsickness

Prevention is the best way to put a stop to carsickness. While it may not always be possible to avoid driving, reducing the frequency of longer rides may be helpful. Dr. Husain advises against family road trips if you have kids who suffer from motion sickness.

You can also try shortening the length of your car rides, when possible. Angelina Meilani, a mother of two, says that her sons would always vomit after 30 minutes of driving. They did not have issues with shorter rides.

While you should not swap your child into a forward facing until they outgrow the manufacturer's listed size limit, it may be helpful to find ways to keep your child from looking down. Try to avoid having your child read a book or look at a screen.

Playing music or audible books, or having a family sing-a-long are fun alternatives that keep the eyes up. Games like I Spy can also help keep children looking out the window.

Dr. Husain suggests leaving the window open for some fresh air. She also recommends giving children a small snack before a car ride, but advises against anything heavy. Meilani says that one of her sons did best with a small, bland snack before a drive, while the other would vomit anything at all.

Another mom, Corina Horsey, points out that nothing worked for her daughter's severe carsickness until a doctor prescribed nausea medicine to take half an hour before a drive or plane ride. Talk to your healthcare provider if you think this may be necessary for your child.

Should I Schedule Car Rides Around Nap Time?

It can be tempting to try and drive during nap time to reduce carsickness. Horsey says that was the only way to make drives longer than 30 minutes when her daughter was young.

If your child is under age 1, however, a car seat is not considered a safe sleep space. Infant sleep spaces are considered safe only when they are completely flat and do not include any kind of positioning device such as a five-point harness.

While a quick nap on the go may be fine, avoid letting your baby sleep in a car seat. If they do fall asleep in the seat, move them to a flat sleeping surface as soon as possible.

What to Do if Your Baby Gets Sick on the Road

When kids get sick in the car, the best thing to do is stop the car as soon as it is safe and let them rest, notes Dr. Husain. Ideally, you want to stop for a break before your child vomits. Since babies and young toddlers cannot always express themselves in words, be on the lookout for signs like yawning, sighing, burping, or fussiness.

If you see your baby exhibiting those signs, try getting your child some fresh air. Horsey finds that letting her daughter get out and walk around for a while helps calm nausea. Or, allow them to rest while the car is parked. Meilani says that her sons did best when she lay them down with a cool cloth on their foreheads.

Children who vomit excessively may be at risk for dehydration so it is important to replace fluids. Dr. Husain advises that parents give children small amounts of water, waiting for intervals of about 15 minutes before giving more to prevent continued vomiting.

Do Children Grow Out of Carsickness?

Carsickness does decline with age, to many parents' relief. Children 6–12 years old tend to suffer the most from carsickness, with a peak between 9 and 10 years old. Meilani's twins still suffer from carsickness at age 6, but less so than in their toddler years. Horsey's daughter still suffers from motion sickness on car, boat, and plane rides at age 5.

During and after puberty, carsickness declines. It is not immediately clear why this is, but it could be that children's bodies begin to get used to car movement and their brains learn to adjust. Know that as your child grows up, relief may be on the horizon.

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7 Sources
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