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Quick reference medical handouts used by Pediatric offices

Motion Sickness in Children

see also: Take Steps to avoid Car Sickness

Many children  experience nausea and even vomiting when riding in an airplane, automobile, or amusement park ride, and this is called motion sickness. Youngsters can also experience motion sickness when riding on a boat or ship, and this is called seasickness even though it is the same disorder. Motion sickness or seasickness is usually just a minor annoyance and does not signify any serious medical illness, but some children and their families are incapacitated by it, and a few even suffer symptoms for a few days after the trip is over.

The problem is caused by an inherited sensitivity of the equilibrium center located in the semicircular canals (inner ear). It is not, as some people will contend, related to emotional problems.

Your child's sense of balance is maintained by a complex interaction of the following parts of the nervous system:

  • The inner ears (also called the labyrinth), which monitor the directions of motion, such as turning, or forward-backward, side-to-side, and up-and-down motions.
  • The eyes, which monitor where the body is in space (i.e. upside down, rightside up, etc.) and also directions of motion.
  • The skin pressure receptors such as in the joints and spine, which tell what part of the body is down and touching the ground.
  • The muscle and joint sensory receptors, which tell what parts of the body are moving.
  • The central nervous system (the brain and spinal cord), which processes all the bits of information from the four other systems to make some coordinated sense out of it all.

The symptoms of motion sickness appear when the central nervous system receives conflicting messages from the other four systems. For example, your child is sitting in the back seat of a moving car reading a book. Their inner ears and skin receptors will detect the motion of travel, but their eyes see only the pages of the book. This could make a child become "car sick."

The symptoms of motion sickness usually start with a vague feeling of stomach upset (queasiness), a cold sweat, fatigue and loss of appetite. This then progresses to vomiting. A young child may not be able to describe queasiness but will demonstrate it by becoming pale and restless, yawning and crying. Later she will lose her interest in food (even her favorite ones), and finally, she will vomit

We do not know why this happens more often in some children than others, but it is most likely due to an increased sensitivity to the brain's response to motion. This response can be affected by previous bad car trips but usually improves as a child gets older.

If your child starts to develop the symptoms of motion sickness, the best thing to do is stop the activity that is causing the problem. If it occurs in the car, stop as soon as safely possible and let her get out and walk around. If you are on a long car trip, you may have to make frequent short stops, but it will be worth it. If it happens on a swing or merry-go-round, stop the motion promptly and get your child off the equipment. She probably will be upset and scared, so try to help her relax. Otherwise, what should be a happy time will become a dreaded experience. Most important, do not get angry with your child, because she cannot help what is happening. Be as supportive of her as you can, or she may refuse to travel or have a temper tantrum the next time you ask her to get into the car or board a plane or boat.

Because "car sickness" is the most common form of motion sickness in children, many preventive measures have been developed. In addition to the frequent stops, you might try the following.

  • Place your young child in an approved car seat, facing forward if over 20 pounds and 1 year of age. Do not let her move around in the car. (You should not let her do this for safety reasons, anyway.)
  • If she has not eaten for three hours, give your child a light snack before the trip, which also helps on a boat or plane. This relieves hunger pangs, which seem to add to the symptoms.
  • Try to focus her attention away from the queasy feeling. Listen to the radio, sing or talk.
  • Have her look at things outside the car, not at books or games.
If none of the above works, stop the car and have your youngster lie on their back for a few minutes with their eyes closed. A cool cloth on the forehead also tends to lessen the symptoms.

Treatment for the nausea includes giving them only sips of clear fluids until their stomach settles. If your child goes to sleep, let them sleep. Usually, children don't vomit more than once, and symptoms disappear in about 4 hours. Ask your child's doctor about the use of nonprescription Dramamine to prevent the motion sickness before it occurs.

Other preventative techniques include: 
  • Car trips: It will help if your child looks out the window. Do not look down at books or games in car. After age 12, children can sit in the front seat and look at the distant scenery
  • Sea travel: Avoid it when practical. Otherwise, stay on deck and look at the horizon.
  • Air travel: Select a seat near the wings.
  • Amusement parks: Avoid rides that spin.
  • Meals: Eat light meals before or during trips.

source: American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Academy of Otolaryngology. Posted 07-26-04 on


As a reminder, this information should not be relied on as medical advice and is not intended to replace the advice of your child’s pediatrician. Please read our full disclaimer.

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