On-the-go Nap Disasters

catching a car nap

So many of my clients call me with questions and complaints about the dreaded car nap disaster!! It is brutal - we know our kiddos sleep best at their scheduled nap time, in their own cozy beds, so it’s hard to know that a 5 minute car nap is going to ruin their sleep for the rest of the day.

Car, stroller, or baby carrier naps can sabotage sleep.

It’s so easy for your child to fall asleep as they are strapped, immobile, into their warm and cozy car seat. Vibration and the white noise of the engine running and tires on the road are calming for a child’s nervous system. This is a recipe for sleep, and even a few moments of drowsing can reset a child’s need for sleep. Because the body and brain were able to sleep a small amount (even if it was poor sleep) your child will not be ready to sleep again for an hour, sometimes two.

It happens to the best of us, and here's what you can do about it:

  • If your child snuck a nap anywhere from 1 – 15 minutes, you will want to try for a quality nap in their bed, but you will need to move it 60 to 90 minutes later.

  • For example, your baby was supposed to nap at 2:00 P.M. but he falls asleep in the car at 12:45 P.M. and sleeps for 10 minutes. The scheduled 2:00 P.M.nap should be moved to 3:00 P.M.

  • If your baby falls asleep for more than 15 minutes in the car, you may have success transferring your child to their bed to finish their nap. If they wake up, then it is best to just consider their on-the-go nap as their nap. You can always move the next nap or bedtime earlier by 30 to 60 minutes.

  • For example, your baby normally naps at 10am, but on the way home from the doctor you hit traffic and she zonked out from 9:10 - 9:30. After a full 20 minutes of sleep, it’s unlikely she will go to sleep easily and/or sleep for a full length (90min.) nap before her regularly scheduled afternoon nap at 1:30. The best thing to do is to make sure she can get to sleep at 12:30 and hope that she takes a nice, 2-hour nap to compensate.

Try to prevent the car ride nap:

  • Don’t give your baby his favorite sleepy item like a lovey, pacifier or blanket while in the car.

  • Provide him with some entertainment or distraction that he can do safely on his own. Books, music, toys, even a tablet or phone if necessary.

  • Offer him something to drink, if old enough to do so safely on his own.

  • Have someone sit in the back seat with him to keep him stimulated or distracted.

  • Roll down the windows.

  • Try to avoid being in the car one hour before nap time.

  • Most importantly drive safe! It is better for your baby to take an unplanned nap in the car then drive unsafely. If you do not want your baby to fall asleep in the car, pull the car over and tend to your baby.

A Note on Safety: The safest way for babies to sleep is on their backs on a firm mattress in a crib or bassinet. Car seats are not intended for babies to sleep in. Babies must always be supervised while in a car seat. Never allow a baby to be in a car seat that has straps that are not buckled or are loose. Make sure your baby fits properly in the car seat and that the car seat is safely installed in your vehicle. Consider getting your car seat installed by a professional. Most fire stations will install car seats and/or do car seat checks for free. Do not use car seats that have expired or do not fit properly in your vehicle. For up to date child passenger safety check out healthychildren.org

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