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Dealing With Seasickness In Children

Like adults, some children are completely immune to it while others can be violently sick with the smallest amounts of motion.

Seasick young boy

Photo: Brian Mistrot

There's nothing that can make time aboard a boat worse than seasickness. Unlike adults, your options for dealing with it can be more limited, as many drugs are not approved for young children (especially kids under four years old) and many boaters wouldn't carry them if they were. While we're not against using prescription (or over-the-counter) medications for our children, there are many things that can be done long before that point to mitigate or even eliminate the need for them. After nearly 14 years of raising our children aboard, here are the things that have worked for us.

The first step in keeping your child from vomiting is to be prepared long ahead of time, long before you leave the dock. Vomiting means nothing worked. Even so, there are steps to help minimalize your child becoming sick again which are also discussed below. So, to get a handle on seasickness, here is where you start:

Before Leaving The Dock

  • Depart with a full stomach and keep it full. Keep crackers and bread aboard, and in easy access. If you suspect your children may get ill or are prone to it, consider foods that are soft and rather bland. Bananas are good, as are many soups and pasta-based casseroles. Avoid anything spicy.
  • No reading! Reading books and playing with some electronics can make a child ill, quickly. Keep those items put away until you arrive, or you're sure the child will not get sick.
  • Carry peppermint. We have found peppermint to be especially helpful if you get it in the "candy canes" because in addition to the positive effects of the peppermint, the sucking on the candy cane takes their mind off of the motion.
  • Carry ginger. You can purchase ginger pills from most nutritional stores, pharmacies, and even many grocery stores. An alternative to having your child take ginger pills is to make ginger snaps. These cookies are not only good, but an easy way to get your child to take their medicine.
  • Carry lots of fluids. The biggest fear from seasickness is dehydration. If your child gets ill, make sure they're getting plenty of fluids. Cool/cold water is great, but we also carry Gatorade or Powerade to help restore electrolytes. For younger children, consider carrying Pedialyte in flavored or unflavored bottles. We alternate between these drinks and water. Carry many different flavors; after a child has gotten sick with one flavor, that same taste may make them nauseous and vomit again.
  • Carry a five-gallon bucket or something similar. Also, make sure you have many plastic bags (garbage bags are preferred — especially the new scented bags) and a lot of paper towels. This is to be used should they become ill.
  • Watch the weather and avoid sea states that might cross the threshold of making your child ill.

While Underway

  • First, unless you're certain your child is not prone to being sick, do not let them spend time below while underway, especially near the bow of the boat. The motion and lack of ventilation makes them even more prone to becoming ill.
  • Keep them above deck in the breeze (a breeze over the face really helps our children).
  • If you have a dodger or windshield, those often act as a vacuum — pulling in gas and diesel fumes, also known as the "station-wagon effect." While these alone may not be enough to get children ill, when the fumes are combined with the motion, it's cumulative and may be enough to push them over the edge. Keep them further back on the vessel where they're more likely to get a clean breeze or in a safe area on deck where the wind will blow in their face. Make sure you're with your child if they're on deck and that everyone is well secured.
  • There are times when you'll need to go below, especially if making a passage. When doing this, find the place with the least amount of motion, which is often the center of the vessel, and as low to the floor as you can get. More than once our children have slept around the mast.
  • Keep your trips short and as protected as possible.

What To Do If They Are Showing Signs of Being Ill

  • Get them into the cockpit or an area that is protected.
  • Change the direction of the boat so that its motion is minimized. Beam seas (swells coming from the side) are generally the worst, followed by going to weather, and finally the best movement is running with the seas — which slows the motion of the boat.
  • Let them hold onto the wheel or drive. You can keep a hand on it (and should), but it takes their mind off of being sick and puts it on the horizon. If they cannot drive, keep them where they can at least see the horizon, and have a clean breeze into their face.
  • If you're at anchor or can stop moving, a swim really helps. The trick is to get them in the water fairly quickly and swimming (or snorkeling), which generally stops any feeling of sickness almost immediately.
  • Keep talking to them and change whatever they're doing. If they're sitting, make them stand. If they're becoming lethargic, make them move. If they're quiet, keep asking them questions, or sing songs at the tops of your lungs. As discussed above, give them some peppermint or ginger snaps. If they'll eat, give them food and get their stomach full.

If They're Going To Be Sick

  • Make sure they're in a secure area. The head or saloon (down below) is not the best place, often resulting in them becoming sick again. Keep them in the cockpit.
  • A natural instinct is to vomit over the side. That is dangerous! Instead, carry a five-gallon bucket (anything will do if you don't have one, even a trash can or cooler if you have to) lined with a plastic bag and many paper towels at the bottom. Make sure they get sick in the bucket and quickly dispose of the bag and put in a new one. Keep it fresh. The smell of vomit can make your children (or you!) ill again.
  • If you're single-handing, you need to quickly find a way to get your boat safely to a harbor or a marina where you can concentrate on your child. It is very difficult to manage both a sick child and keep an eye on the boat. Even if you have someone to help, it is time to change your plans if possible and start back at square one.
  • Make sure they have plenty of fluids after they become ill. They must stay hydrated! In addition to the fluids, crackers or bread really help at this point.
  • Some children will vomit once and not do it again, while others may continue to deteriorate. Your main goal after they have become sick is to stop it from going further. Go back to the basics mentioned above and if those don't seem to be effective, consider quickly making your way to a port or marina where they can recover.

Warning Signs

The signs of seasickness are often in this order, though not always. It is important to catch it early on as once a child begins to vomit, or get close to it, your options are much more limited and much less effective.

  • Child becomes irritable, then becomes quiet. They often quit talking or responding to your questions. They will seem disinterested in everything.
  • Child becomes lethargic. They don't move and won't even bother to pick up their toys or drinks. They may lie back in their seat and daze off into space.
  • If they're old enough, they'll tell you they are not feeling well. They may not be able to tell you what is wrong, just that they do not feel well.
  • Their mouths will start to water and/or they become pale. At this point, they're getting close to vomiting. Our experience is you cannot stop it after this point. Make sure they have a bucket in front of them, and you're preparing to rehydrate them.
  • Vomit. This generally is not one single incident, but many over several minutes. Be aware, your child will often feel better after this and may suddenly not show signs of being seasick. However, generally this is only temporary. Use some of the solutions above to try and keep them from getting to the same point. This is your opportunity to stop it from going further.

If Vomiting Continues

Continual vomiting can be a very serious issue — especially with children. They risk the potential of becoming seriously dehydrated or even tearing their esophagus (Mallory-Weiss tear). If you suspect your child has become dehydrated or is vomiting up blood, seek medical attention immediately.

Prescription Medications

There are prescription meds you can carry to help your child, but these should be discussed with your doctor. Our opinion is that these are a weapon of last resort. We generally can get along without having to consider these — by using the methods above.

If you feel that you should carry these medications, make sure your physician understands these medications will be used on a boat. For example, Phenergan (promethazine) was one of the most commonly prescribed anti-nausea medications we've carried. It commonly is dispensed in two different forms: pill and suppository. The pill is not worth much because the child is vomiting — and once they've taken it, they cannot take it again until the time has reset ... even if they vomited it up soon after taking it. The suppository may be a better option, but it has to be refrigerated. Another option is Zofran ODT. This is similar to promethazine but dissolves under the tongue — making it a better option if your child can take it. Our only negative experience with the ODT tablets is that they appear to be more susceptible to moisture/heat than the standard tablets. We've carried all three of these, but now prefer Zofran ODT, which dissolves under the tongue.

Be aware that very young children probably cannot take either of these medications. Also, these meds will very likely make your child extremely sleepy. It is important to consider where and how they will sleep after taking these drugs. If there's a chance your child may need to take one of these medications, discuss the option of giving the drug to your child on a test basis with your physician. This should be in a controlled environment (on land) where you are close to emergency medical attention. Being many miles away from the shore (and possibly many hours from assistance) is a terrible place to find out that your child has an allergic reaction to a drug.

Discuss these and all other options (including many of the over-the-counter medications) with your physician. There are very, very few children (or adults) who cannot get over seasickness. It just takes a little time, patience, and preparation to see what works best. Most of that preparation should begin long before you leave the dock.

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Brian Mistrot

Contributor, BoatUS Magazine

Brian and Christine Mistrot have been cruising Florida, Puget Sound, and the Gulf Coast since their children were born.