Why Children Get Carsick—And What to Do

Motion sickness is common, especially in children. But what causes it is only partly understood. Experts don't know why some children have it and others don’t.

The most common form of motion sickness for many children is carsickness. But getting carsick isn’t really about the car. It’s about the brain’s ability to understand a message based on what it senses. Normally, the eyes, ears, and joints all send signals to the brain. And these signals are all alike. If you’re traveling in a car, most body parts tell the brain: “We’re moving forward.”

But a child's brain gets different messages if the child is sitting too low to see through the window to the horizon. Or if the child is looking down and reading at the same time. 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. The result is upset stomach (nausea). This can be a problem when children are not looking out the windshield.

If your children are too young to express themselves, they may be carsick if they:

  • Become bad-tempered

  • Yawn frequently

  • Are sweaty and pale

  • Get restless

Here are some tips to prevent carsickness:

  • Stop often and at the first sign of symptoms. Before leaving home, give children some crackers or other light snack. Don't smoke or carry any strong-smelling food in the car.

  • Have your kids sit higher up. Elevate your children with approved child safety seats or booster seats so that they can see the horizon through the windshield. But remember, that children younger than age 2 need to be in rear-facing car seats unless they have reached the highest weight or height allowed by the car seat maker. 

  • Entertain young children. Keep kids busy with activities that stop them from looking down. Instead of using books, try playing music for them to listen to.

If your children get carsick, stop as soon as possible. Have them lie down on their back until the dizziness stops. Put a cool cloth on their forehead. If they have vomited, offer them cold water and a light snack when the nausea passes.

If carsickness is a regular problem, talk with your healthcare provider. He or she may suggest an over-the-counter travel sickness medicine for children older than age 2. Use the correct amount based on your children’s age. Some of these medicines cause sleepiness or even agitation. Always get advice from your healthcare provider and be careful when using them. Don't use a motion sickness patch. It has too high a dosage for children.