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How To Prevent And Prepare For Childhood Car Sickness

By: , September 20th, 2015. Posted in: Health, Parenting, Travel

Childhood car sickness can be difficult to prevent, but there are ways to minimize the risk, and prepare yourself for clean-up.

LB riding in the car (and not getting sick) as we crossed into Minnesota.

The first time LB got sick in the car, he was just over two years old, and we were totally unprepared.  We were on our way to the Milwaukee County Zoo, which is a relatively short 67 mile drive from our house (or approximately 1 hour, without stops).  He was looking forward to seeing the dinosaurs (a robotic life-sized dinosaur exhibit), so he didn’t eat much for breakfast that day (which turned out to be beneficial for our clean-up efforts).  About 45 minutes into the trip, LB began shrieking and pulling at his car seat restraints.  We didn’t have a clue what was going on, until he started throwing up all over himself.  We were able to pull off the freeway a few minutes later, but I’m sure it felt like an eternity to LB, who was covered in his own sick.

Fortunately, due to his minimal breakfast that morning, and the fact that we at least had a roll of paper towels and a change of clothes, clean up was relatively easy.  It also helped that my mother-in-law was with us, which meant there were three adults in the car to assist.  After LB had some crackers and a little water, we were back on the road to enjoy our day at the zoo.  We thought the incident was just a fluke.  We thought it was a one time deal.  LB had never gotten sick before, so we just assumed he must have caught a stomach bug.  Boy, were we wrong.

The second time it happened (just a few weeks later), I was alone in the car with both kids.  We were on our way home from visiting my dad, who lives only 36 miles away (or approximately 45 minutes, without stops).  LB had eaten quite a lot at grandpa’s house, because that’s what you do when you visit grandparents, right?  We made it almost all the way home, when LB started crying and pulling at his car seat restraints again.  I knew what that meant, and I knew I had to pull over STAT.  I ducked the minivan into the parking lot of a mini-storage facility and pulled a crying LB from the car just as he lost his cookies, or shall I say chocolate chip muffins?  It was all over me, all over him, and all over the pavement.  It was even in our shoes, but thankfully was not anywhere in the car.

Because we didn’t take any additional precautions after the first incident, I was still relatively unprepared.  I had to improvise.  I still had paper towels, and I had a small garbage can.  I cleaned both of us up as best I could, and tossed our shoes in the garbage can for the remainder of the ride home.  Jason was at home, so I called ahead so that he could get a bath ready for LB and be prepared to help with LG.  I don’t know what I would’ve done if Jason wasn’t there to help.  I probably could have managed, but it would’ve been ten times less pleasant.

After our second experience with car sickness, I knew it was time to do my research.  I wasn’t going to be caught in that situation again.  No way.  I first contacted my sister-in-law, who’s daughter (our niece) struggled with car sickness when she was little.  She helped us out with some tips on prevention, and we’ve also figured out a few things on our own (although it’s still a learning curve).  I put together a clean-up kit to keep in the car at all times, and we (thankfully) had it with us on our recent road trip to the Twin Cities.

Because we followed our tips for prevention (below), we made it to and from the Twin Cities (which is 270 miles each way) without incident.  However, because we made a rookie mistake on the morning of our 20 minute drive from our hotel to the Minnesota Children’s Museum, we had to use the clean-up kit on the top floor of a Saint Paul parking garage.  Our mistake?  We allowed LB to eat a large breakfast, complete with an entire cup of Greek yogurt, because we really thought he couldn’t get sick going such a short distance.  Lesson learned.

We hope our mistakes, and the lessons we’ve learned, will help you prevent and prepare for your little ones’ car sickness.

Tips for Prevention

  • What, when, and how much your child eats before riding in the car matters.  If you take any of our advice from this list, this is the one you should pay most attention to. Figuring out what works for your child is definitely a learning curve, and I imagine it could be different for every child.  For LB, what I know for certain is that an empty stomach is no good, and a full stomach is no good.  I know that a small meal including whole foods that focuses on protein is better than one laden with processed foods or starchy carbohydrates. I know that waiting a minimum of two hours after your child’s meal is crucial before getting in the car.  I now know that the distance doesn’t matter at all, and that we can no longer trust enough to drive somewhere for a meal and then immediately drive home.
  • Small snacks spaced out during long trips are important.  If you are going to be riding in the car for more than an hour, you need to be sure your child doesn’t get too hungry while still maintaining the ‘not too much food’ rule.  On our way to and from the Twin Cities, we gave LB a handful of goldfish crackers and half a string cheese stick every 90 minutes or so.  We also waited until our final destination before letting him eat a full meal.
  • You may want to invest in some kids’ motion sickness wrist bands.  I’m not sure if these have helped or not.  I used something similar for morning sickness when I was pregnant with both kiddos, and they seemed to help me.  LB was wearing them for most of our long trip to and from the Twin Cities (no incidents), but he was also wearing them on the unsuccessful 20 minute drive to the Children’s Museum.  He isn’t a fan of wearing them, and claims they pinch (so he tends to fidget with them).  At his age, it’s difficult to get him to understand that he needs to leave them alone, so the problem may have been they weren’t positioned properly.  The pair we bought are called No Mo Nausea Bands, and they’re peppermint scented.  We’ll keep using them, even though we’re unsure of their effectiveness.  Our hope is that, as he get’s older, he’ll learn how to properly use them to stave off full blown vomiting.  Every little bit helps.
  • Involve your child, and encourage communication.  This one can be tricky for toddlers, and we’re still working on it with LB.  He now knows that he can use the words “I’m not feeling well” or “I’m sick” when car sickness strikes.  While screaming and pulling at his car restraints was certainly alarming enough for us to pay attention, we want to teach him to take control of his car sickness.  We want him to eventually feel less powerless over the urge to throw up.  Kids are smart, and involving them in their own health and well-being is even smarter.
  • Get creative with distractions.  Long car trips can be tough for kids if they don’t have plenty of fun things to focus on.  However, activities like watching movies, playing video games, or reading can sometimes make car sickness worse.  It helps for your child to take frequent breaks from these activities.  Keep the distractions age appropriate, but challenging.  For LB, when we noticed he was looking a little peaked, we would ask him to close his eyes and count to twenty.  We also sang songs, asked him questions about what we would see on our vacation (or when we got home), and did goofy things like fake sneezing with a different word at the end (Ah-Ah-Ah-Choo!, Ah-Ah-Ah-Donuts!, Ah-Ah-Ah-Salamander!).  LB thought it was endlessly hilarious, and it allowed us to pass some time.  When in doubt, improvise.
  • Remind your child to look forward, rather than to the side of the vehicle.  This one is simple, looking forward is much less problematic for motion sickness.
  • Plan long trips with nap time (or bed time) in mind.  If your child can sleep on the road, it’s much better for everyone.  We feel relatively confident that sickness won’t strike while LB is sleeping (at least that’s been true thus far).  On our trips to the Twin Cities and back, we started out two hours after breakfast and LB fell asleep after the first pit stop for at least an hour.  By the time he woke up, we were more than half way home and only needed one more stop.
  • Fresh air.  My sister-in-law claims this was the most effective method of prevention for our niece.  So far, we haven’t mastered the simple solution of rolling down a window, but we’re working on it.  We’ve been trying to teach LB that when he’s feeling a little green, he can ask for some fresh air and take a few deep breaths.
  • Try essential oil lollipops.  LB has only had these twice, and it’s unclear whether they’ve helped.  I only know from my own experience that oils like ginger and peppermint really help to calm an upset tummy.  The brand we bought are called Three Lollies Queasy Pops Lollipops.  Of course LB loves them, they are sanctioned candy.

Car Sickness Preparedness Kit

  • Vomit bags. These bags are great when used properly, but you’ll need a plan.  The best idea is to teach your child how to use them, but practice makes perfect and LB isn’t quite there yet.  Before kids are fully able to do this for themselves, another adult passenger (or older child) may be able to help.  Just make sure all involved know the plan and what is expected of them.
  • Scented trash bags.  There may come a time when you are unable to get somewhere you can throw things away.  If you have to travel any distance with the dirty items from a sickness accident, you’ll be glad to have something to mask the odor.
  • Paper towels. You need at least two full rolls in the vehicle at all times.  Trust me on this.
  • Clorox wipes.  These really come in handy for cleaning the straps and buckles of a car seat, and should help kill the nasty germs. EDIT: After sharing this blog post, a good friend (and self-proclaimed car seat nerd) pointed out that using anything but water to clean a car seat could be unsafe (due to possible damage to the straps and/or plastic) and would most likely void a car seat warranty.  It’s definitely a good idea to check your car seat manual so you know what cleaning products are allowed. There’s also great information on cleaning a car seat at “Car Seats For The Littles”.
  • Baby wipes.  Keep a full container of baby wipes in the vehicle just for this purpose (in addition to any you may have in your diaper bag.)  These come in handy for cleaning yourself and your child after you’ve removed soiled clothing.
  • Fabric wet bag.  This is for soiled clothing or other washable items so you can tolerate the odor until you can get somewhere to wash them.
  • Vomit cleaning powder.  We haven’t needed this yet, as all of our accidents affected only our clothing and our son’s car seat.  If you have a projectile vomiting situation, this powder can help soak up the problem and neutralize/mask the odor.  Follow the instructions on the package.
  • Hand sanitizer gel.  Because germs.
  • Latex gloves.  For those folks who prefer to avoid getting vomit on their hands.
  • Car seat protector.  We bought two of these for our Diono Radian car seat, because they are washable.  This gives us an extra for when one of them needs to be washed, and avoids having to clean the actual car seat if things get messy. EDIT: Disclaimer – This protector is made specifically Diono brand car seats.  Before buying anything of this nature for your car seat, check with manufacturer to ensure the product doesn’t interfere with the safety of your car seat.  Here is some information from “Car Seats For The Littles”.
  • Protector for under car seat.  Again, this would be much easier to clean than your car.  EDIT: Disclaimer – This protector is made specifically Diono brand car seats.  Before buying anything of this nature for your car seat, check with manufacturer to ensure the product doesn’t interfere with the safety of your car seat.  Here is some information from “Car Seats For The Littles”.
  • Extra clothing.  Keep an extra change of clothing for every member of your family at all times.  You never know how far that stuff will fly.

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