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Why does a 5 minute car ride sleep ruin nap time??

Anyone who has had a baby or young toddler has had this happen!  You are in the car, you look in your rear view mirror to see in your back seat baby mirror that your sweet little one is SLEEPING…when he shouldn’t be!  You tried to strategically plan your trip to go out to run errands or go to an event around his nap time.  Your baby should not fall asleep in the car because nap time isn’t for another hour or so, but he does!  Why??  Now what do you do?  How can you try to keep your baby awake in the car?

Why does this happen??  I have a few theories.  First, a car ride tends to be pretty comfortable.  The baby is all snuggled up in his car seat, maybe with his lovey or favorite blanket.  Next, the motion and vibration of the car is relaxing to most babies.  There is nothing new to hear, see, or feel so it calms most babies enough to fall asleep.  Lastly, for some babies, the noise of a car is like white noise and it drowns outside noises making sleep more inviting.

So now what do you do?  If your baby falls asleep in the car and sleeps for 1 to 15 minutes, move the next planned nap 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 get moved to 3:00 P.M.  If your baby falls asleep for more than 15 minutes in the car, you will likely need to call this your baby’s nap or try to transfer your baby from the car seat to the crib to continue his nap.  If he wakes up quickly after the car seat to crib transfer, plan on calling that nap over and move the next sleep (nap or bedtime) earlier, usually 30 to 60 minutes earlier will work.

How to 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 your baby to fall asleep in the car, pull the car over and tend to your baby.

Safety Note:  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.  Click here is a good resource to determine what car seat you need for your baby.

About the author

Shannon Glenn

Shannon Glenn is the owner and founder of Sleep Well Children Consulting and a Certified Pediatric Sleep Specialist. She is dedicated to helping parents assist their children and babies in developing healthy sleep habits. With a B.A. in Psychology, Shannon has worked extensively with children and their families for over 15 years in a variety of settings.  She has been offering sleep solutions for over six years.  

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