Updated: Aug 2, 2021
There's two pesky scenarios I hear about all the time. One is when you pick your child up from daycare, maybe he didn't nap super well, and he falls asleep on the car ride home. Bedtime is then a fight because of the late car nap. The second scenario is very similar. You decide to get out of the house for the morning. You try to make it home before nap time, but your child falls asleep in the car and then refuses to nap at home. This results in baby only getting a 20-minute nap and then the rest of the day is thrown off. I'm willing to bet that every parent has been in either or both of these situations before.
My husband likes to make fun of me for falling asleep in the car, too. There's just something about the gentle movement, natural white noise, and oh man...if it's dark outside, I'm gone. For babies, these factors plus being tightly cocooned in a car seat and slightly reclined...you can imagine why it's so easy for them to conk out in the car. Sometimes I use this to my advantage. Other times, I try to avoid it like the plague. Here are my tips for keeping your child awake in the car.
Don't offer sleep associations. The pictures above shows what not to do. If your child sleeps with a pacifier or a special stuffed animal, then don't give him these things in the car unless you want him to fall asleep. These things are sleep associations, meaning they remind him of and help him go to sleep.
Keep the temperature cool. If it's too warm in the car, it's a recipe for sleep. Remember, he's cocooned in a reclined car seat. Add heat and it's like being wrapped up in a warm blanket. If the weather is nice enough, you can even crack the windows and let a breeze through.
Offer a small toy. Give him something to do to pass the time. When you've got nothing to do but stare out the window at quickly passing trees, why not just doze off? Having something to focus on could help keep him from falling asleep. You can even keep a small bin of toys in the car if this is a situation you're in often. If those toys are ones he only gets to play with in the car, it'll make them special and hopefully keep his attention longer. You can even rotate them every month or so if you want to get real fancy.
Offer a snack (if old enough). If your child is old enough, you can also offer a snack. We all know that snacks work wonders for all kinds of things. Keeping a child awake is one of those great benefits of a snack. Make sure it's something that is not a common choking hazard.
Pump up the jams. We're not talking classical or calming lullabies. Play some music with a good beat, and/or music your child likes to sing and dance to. And crank it up!
Utilize an older sibling, if possible. If you have an older child who no longer naps, and is much less likely to fall asleep, ask him to talk to your younger one. If he sees him start to doze off, he can play with him, talk to him, sing to him, etc.
Don't travel within an hour of his next sleep time. This one is probably the hardest to follow. An hour is a decent chunk of time and you can't always control when you're in the car (like after picking up from daycare). However, if at all possible, avoid being in the car too close to nap/bedtime. Remember all of those factors I mentioned above that cause a baby to easily fall asleep in the car? When you add in the fact that he is tired and about ready for sleep anyway, a car nap is bound to happen.
If your little one falling asleep in the car regularly gets him off schedule, these tips could help keep him up. When all is said and done, if it doesn't work and a car nap is unavoidable, adjust his schedule as needed. If he only gets a 25-minute car nap instead of his usual 2-hour afternoon nap, then just put him to bed early that night. An early bedtime is much better than squeezing in a really late nap, which will then make bedtime later too. (Read Setting Effective Schedules for more information on why that is.)
~Ashley Bell, your pediatric sleep consultant