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Car Naps: what to do when you child falls asleep in the car

You’re almost home and suddenly notice it…the silence. Only to look back and realize your child has just fallen asleep minutes from home! What the heck do you do now?! We’ve all been here. Do you let your little one sleep or wake them up? Let's take a look at how motion affects sleep and what you can do next time you find yourself in this situation.

First off, let’s talk about motion sleep and how if affects quality of sleep. Motion or vibrations during sleep will keep the brain in a lighter state of sleep, resulting in much lower quality sleep. The most restorative sleep happens during deep sleep.

Newborns (0-4 months) sometimes need all the help falling asleep, so a car nap for them is okay. For older babies 4 months + and toddlers, motion sleep is not ideal. Sleeping in their own crib or bed always results in the best quality sleep because they can get that deep, restorative sleep they need.

Relying on car sleep for your child’s naps may be the easy option, but in all honesty, it will not get you the results you are hoping for when you look at quality of sleep.

Here some of my tips for keeping your child awake in the car:

  • Keep a set of toys and/or books to offer specifically for the car – that way they are new and fun (periodically switch these out to keep things novel)

  • Turn on music and sing! Or just sing their favorite songs

  • Avoid offering sleep props like blankets, stuffed animals, or pacifiers,

  • Open the windows

  • Enlist a sibling to help keep them awake (what sibling doesn’t love to pester?)

  • Play a game like ‘I Spy,’ or make up a game to keep your child engaged until you arrive home

Disclaimer: safety always comes first! Please do not attempt any of these unless it can be done safely. It is better for your child to fall asleep in the car, then to put everyone at risk just to keep them awake.

We want to avoid motion sleep as much as possible, however, sometimes it is simply unavoidable. Here you have 2 options:

Option 1

If your child is asleep less than 15 minutes, you will need to allow some wake time before trying for another nap. Allow your little one to play for 45-60 minutes to build their sleep pressure back up before trying for nap in their bed.

Option 2

If your child falls asleep for longer than 15 minutes, the best thing you can do is let them finish out the nap - at least long enough to complete one sleep cycle (30-45 minutes).

If you find yourself in this situation, here are a few things you can do:

  1. Continue driving, so they can complete one full sleep cycle (30-45 minutes). Maybe, take this time to go get yourself some coffee because you deserve it, Mama!

  2. Park at home and let them finish out the nap in the car (Safety note: always stay nearby, keep your child properly buckled, and never leave your child sleeping in a hot car)

  3. Use an early bedtime – if your child had a power nap in the car the quality of sleep was not quite up to par, so most likely you will need an earlier bedtime – at least 15 – 30 minutes earlier than usual.

For the purpose of quality, restorative sleep, the majority of children’s sleep should take place in their own safe and familiar sleep space. However, I do understand that car naps are sometimes unavoidable and that’s okay! Life happens. Next time you find yourself in this situation, don’t panic. Use these tips as guide to help you through!

If you need help getting your child’s naps on track, please reach out! I would love to chat with you and help you and your child the quality sleep you need.


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