Motion Sickness and the Vestibular System

To get anywhere, we have to move; relying on forms of transportation to get us from point A to point B. However, it’s easier said than done when you’re a parent. Some kids don’t do well with movement outside of their control, including travel by car, boat, or even using the elevator. Thus, we get the ever-dreaded…motion sickness.

Motion sickness occurs when there’s conflicting information between what the eyes are seeing and what the body is experiencing. This can happen when we attempt to read a book while riding in a car, or experience turbulence while on a plane, or having “sea legs” after getting off a boat to name a few.

Symptoms include:

  • Nausea
  • Dizzy or light-headedness
  • Headache
  • Mood changes
  • Increased salivation
  • Pale skin
  • Sweats or clamminess
  • Yawning
  • Fatigue
  • General unease and anxiety

While it happens time to time for all of us, about 10% of the overall population are especially susceptible, including children between 2-12 years of age. Kids who deal with this mismatch of sensations can go into a sensory overload, resulting in agitation and meltdowns that can veer a road trip (or simply running errands) off course.

Mixed Signals

The vestibular system has a hand in helping integrate the other sensory systems (such as touch, proprioception, and vision), developing an overall sense of self in relation to our environment.

Our vestibular system is responsible for sensing where our head is in all planes of movement, letting us know where we are in relation to gravity. Are we upright, lying down, or upside down? Are we moving or still? How fast are we going and in which direction?

In turn, our visual system communicates to our brain what we see to make accurate judgements about our surroundings. With this data, our brain can make necessary adjustments to maintain balance, posture, and to stabilize our head and neck during movement.

However, if these two systems provide opposing information (like our vestibular system saying we’re in motion, but the visual system says can’t confirm this movement), the result is motion sickness.
*Conversely, a phenomenon known as pseudo-motion sickness can happen when the when the eyes detect us moving, but the vestibular system determines we aren’t (as seen with many hours of gaming).

So when there’s a clash of sensations, kids could feel unsafe or uncomfortable in their own bodies, leading to queasiness and difficulties self-regulating.

Motion sickness is prevalent in the toddler to tween years because our kids’ brains are still learning how to filter and make sense of their day-to-day sensations.

Prevention is Key

Since the root cause of motion sickness is the visual and vestibular systems are at odds with one another, it’s helpful to anticipate the potential problem before any travel takes place.

  • Out the window. Try to have your child ride where their eyes will see the same motion that their body is feeling. That may mean having your child look out the window and focus on a fixed earth point, commonly the horizon. If your child is old enough to be forward-facing in a car, it may be helpful to put them in the back middle seat where they can see out the front window. If your child is rear-facing, install a mirror so they can focus on the horizon ahead of the car (and see their sweet face).
  • Pick your seat. Find seats where there’s more stability and less motion. That would be sitting by the wing on a plane or choosing seats near the middle of a boat. Consider this as well if you’re in an SUV with three rows. Also, the larger the means of transport, the less susceptible it is to imposed movement. For example, moderate/choppy waves won’t cause a ship to rock as much as they would for a small boat.
  • Say no to multitasking. Limit or avoid reading, playing video games, or watching movies as they can overstimulate your child visual and vestibular senses. This also includes the use of binoculars and cameras in a moving vehicle. Instead, try podcasts, audiobooks, conversations, or music as a form of entertainment. (Note: We did NOT say don’t watch movies in the car altogether, cause god knows my kids are dependent on them during road trips. Again, this tip is if your child is prone to motion sickness)
  • Get that shut-eye. If the sensory signals are getting crossed, have your kid close their eyes. By eliminating one sense, your child can focus on interpreting the other one without the nausea. Better yet, get them in a reclined position and have them sleep off the motion sickness as much as possible.

Other helpful tips:

  • Watch what you eat (and smell). Traveling on an empty stomach can make kids feel sick. Provide small, frequent, bland snacks and meals to help. Avoid heavy, greasy, or sugary foods immediately before and during travel as it may be unsettling in your child’s tummy. Offer frequent sips of water throughout the trip instead of drinking it all at once. Also, get rid of strong odors. If you have a heavy air freshener or leather seats in your car, that could also be a culprit.
  • Get some air. Ventilation can help alleviate some motion sickness symptoms. Make sure air is circulating through the vehicle. You may have to blast the A/C for a moment, open the windows, or provide them a mini-fan if need be. Taking frequent rest breaks during a long road trip can be beneficial too.
  • Go natural. Remedies that involve the use of ginger (ginger ale, ginger tea, candied ginger) have been shown to ease nausea and motion sickness. Mint may also do the trick as its aroma can be soothing. Acupressure bands worn around the wrist have shown modest efforts in combating motion sickness.
  • Last resort. If your child’s motion sickness is so bad, medications may offer relief. Over-the-counter drugs like Dramamine or Benadryl work well when given an hour before travel, but be cautious of the dosage and possible side effects (drowsiness, dry mouth, constipation, etc). Consult your pediatrician on what may work best for your little one.

If you notice that your child is starting to get motion sickness, stop the vehicle and let them get out. Have them walk around or lie on their back for a few minutes with eyes closed. If you have one handy, a cool cloth placed on your child’s forehead can be helpful.

Motion sickness can really happen at any time and any age. TBH, we personally still get seasick, carsick, and plane sick under certain circumstances. If your child seems to be plagued with motion sickness, know that it gets better as they get older. The more car, plane, or boat rides they take, the more they can adapt to its movements with time. Just check in with them frequently and be prepared to make adjustments in their environment as needed.

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