Most parents are familiar with the following situation. You need to run a quick errand and you’re confident you can make it out and back before nap time. You buckle your kiddos up in the car, and on the way home you look back and one of your littles has fallen asleep. Rats! It’s still an hour before their scheduled nap time. Every time this happens you know they will struggle with naps or bedtime later on in the day.
What’s the Down and Dirty with Car Naps?
The feeling of constant gentle motion that children experience while riding in the car often puts them in a relaxed, sleepy state. For some kids, even if nap is still an hour or two away, they’ll nod off for a nap in their car seat after enough time spent in the car.
If car naps are common in your family, you have likely noticed that even a short 5-10 minute snooze is enough to throw your child off their sleep schedule. What’s happening here is your child has relieved the sleep pressure they were accumulating between sleep periods. Biologically speaking, sleep pressure refers to a baby’s natural sleep drive that extends as wake time increases. If a child falls asleep too early, they miss the opportunity to build up an adequate amount of sleep pressure to sustain a long nap. This is the reason most accidental car naps are short, and you end up with a grumpy little one on your hands later on in the day.
What Should You Do When Your Child Falls Asleep in the Car?
If you’re able to catch your little one right as they are drifting off (and you are driving safely), try keeping them awake! Roll down your windows, turn up the music, or sing and talk to them. Dare we say consider offering a tablet or phone to keep them stimulated until you make it to your destination. If humanly possible, holding off a mediocre car nap is best.
We know how hard preventing these pesky car naps can be. If you peek in the rearview mirror and you suddenly notice your little one is fast asleep in their car seat, rather than waking them, let them sleep! Chances are, they have already entered into a sleep cycle and you might as well allow them to get as much sleep as they can since they are unlikely to fall asleep at their normal nap time. A 30-45+ minute car nap is preferable to a 10 minute car nap. Since both are enough to reset sleep pressure and prevent a proper nap from happening anytime soon, it’s best to let them sleep as long as possible.
If your baby is around 4 months or younger, you may be able to successfully transfer them from the car seat to their crib once you arrive at your destination. It’s much harder to transfer a sleeping child over the age of 4 months, so we recommend continuing to drive around while they snooze, or parking in a safe place and remaining in the car until they wake.
How To Adjust Sleep After a Car Nap
If your little one takes an accidental car nap longer than 15 minutes, you will likely need to wait a full wake window before putting them down again. If the nap is a quick snooze under 15 minutes, wait about 75% of their next wake window to put them down. For example, if they typically go down for their nap every 2 hours but they fell asleep for 10 minutes in the car between naps, wait 90 minutes before putting them down for another nap. The science is not exact here, but if you put them down for their next sleep period too early, they are likely to struggle to fall asleep and may protest for quite awhile before finally being able to nod off.
How to Plan for Car Naps
Planning ahead is essential to making sure car naps don’t throw you off schedule.
The most sure way of avoiding accidental car naps all together is to avoid driving within 1-2 hours of nap time, especially if your little one loves that constant motion! For most parents, the ideal time to take a drive is directly following a nap. By doing that you can almost be sure your child will be able to stay awake during the drive.
If you know in advance you’ll be driving during nap time, great! Plan to hop in the car near the end of their wake If you know in advance you’ll be driving during nap time, great! Plan to hop in the car near the end of their wake window so they’ve had enough time to accumulate optimal sleep pressure to sustain a longer nap. If you have to jump in the car early, have someone sit in the back seat to keep them awake through the end of their wake window for the highest chance of a long nap. If you’re riding solo, bring along a snack with some natural sugar to keep them alert. Rolling the windows down and music up will also do the trick of keeping them awake long enough to make it through the window.
If your little one typically sleeps with a pacifier and you’re worried about them falling asleep in the car, avoid offering the paci in the car within 90 minutes of nap time. A child who has any of their sleep associations in the car (lovies, pacifiers, even a bottle) can be risky if you are trying to avoid an inadvertent car snooze.
Always Be Aware of Safe Sleep
Finally, safety awareness around carseats and sleep is very important. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends children sleep on a firm, flat mattress void of any toys, blankets, or other items that may be choking hazards. However, they do make an exception for sleep in car seats while the car is in use. Babies that nap in a car seat are safe when the seat is used properly and meets the approved safety standards, and the child is attended to. For detailed car seat safety information, check out the latest guidelines published by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). It is not safe to leave a child asleep in their car seat unattended or overnight.
Remember, Tomorrow is Another Day
Accidental car naps are never a parent’s favorite, but if you “mess up” your baby’s sleep schedule one day, remember that you’ll always have a chance to get back on track tomorrow!
For more information on preventing short naps, head over to this blog post.