Motion sickness is a very common problem in children that can cause a lot of distress for both the child and their parents. However, there are a number of simple things that families can do to help children who are prone to this condition.
Motion sickness is a reaction in the body and brain that can be triggered by any type of motion, though it is most commonly caused by riding in a car or boat or by rides at a playground or amusement park. The reaction may trigger a combination of:
Increased heart rate
This constellation of symptoms can be extremely unpleasant and distressing to an affected child.
Nearly everyone will experience motion sickness at some point in their life, but some children are more prone to it than others. A personal or family history of migraines and/or anxiety can put children at higher risk for being prone to motion sickness. Motion sickness occurs when the type of movement that the brain is expecting doesn’t match with the type of movement that the inner ear and/or eyes are detecting. This triggers a nausea reaction and also triggers the body’s stress response (sympathetic nervous system activation), which leads to unpleasant symptoms.
There are a few strategies to help avoid motion sickness, including:
Avoid rides at playgrounds and amusement parks that involve repetitive circular or swinging motions
Minimize driving on backroads with lots of hills and turns
Avoid books and screens in vehicles
Encourage the child to look out the window in the car
Keep clothing light and the temperature in the vehicle cool
Keep the child well hydrated and avoid heavy meals before activities that tend to trigger motion sickness
Try acupressure bracelets, such as Seabands
There is no cure for motion sickness, but some treatments that may be helpful if the interventions listed above are unsuccessful include:
Vestibular physical therapy, which places like Boston Children's Hospital offer
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and/or biofeedback
Many medications can be very helpful in preventing or treating motion sickness, including:
Vestibular suppressants: These include dimenhydrinate (Dramamine) and meclizine (Bonine), which are helpful in preventing motion sickness when given 1 to 2 hours before a triggering activity, such as a long car ride or boat trip. However, they can cause drowsiness.
Ondansetron (Zofran): This medication helps with preventing/treating nausea and vomiting, but it doesn’t prevent motion sickness directly. It works best when given at least 1 to 2 hours before a triggering activity.
Scopolamine: This patch can be worn for 72 hours and is very effective at preventing motion sickness, but it’s not Food and Drug Administration (FDA)-approved for children under 12 years of age. It may cause drowsiness and temporary vision changes.
Cyproheptadine (Periactin): This is an antihistamine (allergy medicine) that also happens to work well at preventing motion sickness. It requires a prescription and can cause drowsiness and increased appetite. This medication works best when taken every day, so it’s really only indicated for children with very severe, frequent motion sickness.
Ginger may be helpful at preventing/treating motion sickness in some children, though there is very limited proof of its efficacy from good-quality medical studies. There are formulations of ginger that are sold at most pharmacies that are intended to be used for motion sickness prevention and treatment.