Illustration credit Jason Torchinsky/Jalopnik

Sometimes you will get a warning, something like “Daaaad, I don’t feel good.” Or you may just get the faint sound of a liquidy burble before the event. A bomb is about to go off in your back seat, usually some putrid combination of chicken nuggets, PB&J and juicy drink. It’s not a matter of if, but when.

For many of us parents, we have learned to deal with the inevitable vehicular vomit explosion through experience. For those of you who have not yet had to handle this situation, here are some things you need to know.

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First of all, this is very different from that time your friend in college had too much to drink and you had to race against the clock to get him or her home. While the threat to your vehicle was real, you were safe with the knowledge that they could probably open the door and throw chunks on the road. But when you have a toddler strapped into a car-seat with that five-point harness...there is no escape.

So before we get into how to handle the inevitable mess, I’m going to suggest that every parent keep an emergency car sick bag with the following items.

  • Paper Towels. You can never have too many of these.
  • Carpet cleaner spray, preferably something with “foaming action.”
  • A bunch of plastic bags. I know these are not the most environmentally friendly, but keep a big wad of them in your bag for cleanup.
  • Change of clothes. Keep in mind kids grow out of stuff quickly so be sure to change this out when they get into a new size or the seasons change.
  • Baby wipes. Remember to keep these sealed well as they can dry out.
  • Rubber gloves. Are you the squeamish type? A few pairs of rubber gloves will make cleanup a bit more bearable.
  • A bag of quarters, about ten dollars worth.
  • Some kind of air freshener spray like Febreeze.
  • A towel.

This all sounds like a lot of stuff, but everyone has an old backpack lying around somewhere and you can easily squeeze all of these items into something like that.

Now that you are prepared, here is how to manage a car sick incident.

Stay Calm

It can be difficult to remain calm when there is a waterfall of vomit spewing from your child’s mouth, especially if it’s happening in a somewhat brand new car. When my son was two, I drove him home from his grandmother’s house. He likes to “go zoom in the GTI,” so I take him in my car when I can. We were about 20 minutes from home when it happens. Now keep in mind I’ve only owned the Volkswagen for about two months.

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I was overcome with an emotional combination of both empathy and fear. I toggled back and forth between “I feel so bad for him...” and “...oh fuck, cloth seats!

The best thing you can do is to keep your head about you as soon as it happens, tell the kid it’s going to be OK and do not get angry no matter how bad the mess is. Your little one is going to be pretty upset and uncomfortable. If you get worked up it is only going to make them more upset.

Drive Easy

You may be tempted to slam on the brakes and pull over immediately. You might want to put the hammer down and speed to the nearest rest stop. Don’t. Dramatic maneuvers will likely trigger more nausea and more mess. Just like a good racecar driver, you want your inputs to be smooth. You aren’t going to fix this mess in the first stop anyway, so even after you do the initial cleanup don’t haul ass to your final destination. They day is already bad enough. You don’t want to add an expensive speeding ticket on top of it.

Isolate The Mess

Clean the kid first, and the car second. This may sound obvious, but some folks get very uptight about their car getting dirty so their priorities could become clouded in a time of crisis. The first time my son got car sick, we were on a long road trip from New Jersey, to Charleston. He was about nine months at the time. My wife and I wrongly assumed that a nice bottle before the drive should keep him asleep for a while. Heavy bumper to bumper traffic on I-95 turned the milk into curds in the poor kid’s belly and it had to be released.

We exited the highway and I found a grocery store bathroom to give the kid a washing in the sink. Luckily he was small enough at the time to sort of fit. If you have older kids, however, and no access to a bath or shower, this is where the wipes and paper towels come in handy.

Find a safe place to get them out of the car. Take the dirty clothes off and stuff them into one of the plastic bags. Tie that sucker up and put it in another bag.

Then wipe your kid down. First with the paper towels, then with the baby wipes. If you have access to a sink or something, try to rinse your kid off as best you can. Don’t worry about a full wash right now. Once you get to your final destination, that will be time for a shower or bath. You are just trying to remove the smell right now. But be sure to dry your kid off; wet and car sick is not a good combo.

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Once the kid is sort of clean, it’s time for the car. If the car seats are splattered you are going to be tempted to remove them right away. Don’t. The kid still needs something dry and comfortable to ride in. There will be time for a car seat deep cleaning later, your goal here is just to make the seat livable for the duration of the ride. Use the paper towels to grab up as much as you can and stuff that mess into the plastic bags. Use the carpet cleaner spray and give any targeted surface a good soaking, then pat it dry with more paper towels so your child is not sitting on a soaking wet car seat.

The Aftermath

Once you reach your destination and your child is washed and changed, now it is time to really clean your car and the car seats. If you aren’t home you need to find a laundromat and a car wash. This is where the ten dollars’ worth of quarters will come into play.

Now I’m going to give all of you new parents a lifehack that will come in handy later. When you get that new car seat, before you install it, practice taking it apart. Learn how to disconnect the tabs and straps to get all the cloth and material pieces off the plastic. This is not always as intuitive as it should be. I’ve probably stripped down and re-installed car seats about half-dozen times already. Learn to be a pro at this.

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Anyway, toss all of the dirty clothes and car seats into the wash and drive to the car wash for a good shampooing. Even if you have leather seats, chances are your carpet is going to need some cleaning. You would hope that a car wash would have a shampooer for the carpets. I have found that these are rare. But, if you’ve followed my advice, you have your own carpet cleaner with foaming action. You are prepared. Give everything a good soak and let it sit for a few minutes. Then fire up the vacuum and you should be good to go in no time. Take a moment to appreciate your resolve, your preparedness, your accomplishment. You did it.

Having your kid get sick in the car, especially on a road trip, is never a pleasant experience. However, with a little preparation and the ability to stay calm, you and your car will get through it just fine.