Planning a Road Trip? Here’s How to Prevent Carsickness in Kids

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Having a child prone to getting carsick doesn’t mean you need to ditch plans for long road trips. Some smart prevention strategies can help. Here, expert-approved tips to make things smoother this summer.

Some kids can slump down in the back seat of a car with their eyes glued to an iPad for hours and feel fine, while other children aren’t so lucky. Nausea from motion sickness can happen when there’s a disconnect between the motion the body feels and what the eyes are seeing, says Andrew Bernstein, MD, spokesman for the American Academy of Pediatrics. If a child reads in the car, for example, what’s in his or her line of vision is stable despite the movement, which confuses the brain and can make sufferers feel sweaty, dizzy and queasy, he explains. The good news: Having a child prone to getting carsick doesn’t mean you need to ditch plans for long road trips. Some smart prevention strategies can help. Here, expert-approved tips to make things smoother this summer.

Keep pre-trip meals light.

Although some kids will vomit if they get carsick, fasting before a trip isn’t the answer, Dr. Bernstein says. “You don’t want them to travel with an empty stomach, but a big high-fat meal isn’t a good idea either, as it can worsen nausea,” he says. His advice: Feed kids a light, healthy meal, preferably with a little protein, such as a turkey sandwich, cheese sticks, apple slices and grapes.

Seat carsickness-prone kids up front if possible.

Motion sickness is less likely to occur in the front seat because the greater visibility reduces the number of mixed signals between the brain and the eyes, so kids are less likely to get sick. If the front seat isn’t feasible and you drive a minivan, the second row is preferable to the one all the way in back. “The third row is an enclosing situation due to decreased visibility,” Dr. Bernstein says. Kids are less likely to feel motion sickness in the middle row where they’re better able to see out the windows. 

If weather abides, crack a window.

Keep kids comfortable by making sure they’re not overdressed for the ride and letting in some fresh air if weather permits. “It provides another sensation signaling to kids that they’re moving, which helps overwhelm the part of the brain that thinks they’re not moving,” Dr. Bernstein says.

Shift their focus to the world outside the car.

Books, coloring books, TV and gaming devices all keep children’s focus on stationary points inside the car, which causes the body-brain confusion that leads to queasiness. Encourage kids to play old-school car-trip games with you such as “I spy” and the license plate game. Kids are less likely to get carsick if their eyes are taking in moving scenery.

Make pit stops if time permits.

If you can swing it, pull off the road periodically and let kids run around a bit at a rest stop or better still, at a playground. Release from their car prison combats kids’ restlessness, and having solid ground under their feet again interrupts the brain confusion process that can make them carsick.

If all else fails, antihistamines might help.

Because some medications to prevent motion sickness can cause drowsiness, dehydration, blurred vision, and agitation in children, you might want to try a few drug-free intervention strategies first, Dr. Bernstein says. But some medications, such as Dramamine Less Drowsy and Bonine -- which comes in patches and in chewable forms that can be given to kids over 12 -- can be effective for kids prone to carsickness.

-- By Virginia Pelley

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