How to Prevent Toddlers from Napping in the Car

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Baby sleeping in car seat, covered with a sibling\'s coat.

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Sleeping children are a beauty to behold, especially at home in their beds. I’ve never been a stickler for kids napping at home. I’m okay, in fact, more than okay with car naps on a long drive. Ever sit in bumper-to-bumper LA traffic with a screaming baby?

Yeah, you know what I’m talking about….

However, if it’s a quick trip from the park to home, I’d rather they waited before they snoozed. A 15-minute catnap is enough to blow a 3-hour naptime out of the water.

I’ve had toddlers for the last 12 years now and nothing’s changed. If I don’t engage my little one for the entire ride, she will fall asleep, even if we are one block from home. So, we try to keep FishBaby awake until her crib is in sight.

Here are some ways we attempt this miraculous feat:

  • Sing songs, NOT lullabies. Try rousing, piraty, laughing, clapping songs.
  • Talk about the day. Beginning babblers often love this.
  • Ask questions that require an active response, like “Where’s your nose?” “Point to your eyes.”
  • Look for vehicles of a certain color or look for tractors, fire engines, etc.
  • Hunt for the monkey in the trees. Yes, I lie to my kiddo. But, it works. We talk about monkeys and look for them in the trees we pass.

What do YOU do to keep the sleepy toddler awake?

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  1. roll all of the windows down…this works especially well when it is wintertime:) We mom’s do what we gotta do to protect that oh so wonderful naptime!!

  2. My babies are no longer little, but your post and other readers’ responses brought back some great memories for me — thanks!

    We had a tiny little car when my kids were babies which made it much easier to keep them awake because I was so close to them (I nicknamed myself Annoying Mom when they were sleepy because I’d do anything annoying to keep them awake!). Now with the larger vehicle we have (mini van) I can’t imagine doing what I did back then because they’d be too far away and could tune me out!

    I, too, was guilty of taking the scenic route if they did indeed fall asleep, or I’d even take the opportunity to drive to the next community over (about an hour’s drive) to get them a longer nap and then we’d run errands there.

  3. That picture is just so so sweet. I’ve used your tips too. I get my daughter to help distract our little guy from truck-napping as he’ll often nod off as I turn onto our road. Have I told you lately how much I enjoy your blog? 🙂

  4. I have been guilty of taking the scenic route home if my boy falls asleep in the car. When we were on vacation recently he wouldn’t nap in the house, so my hubby and I ended up taking a few long afternoon drives around the beautiful island just so he would sleep and we could relax, enjoy the scenery and talk.
    To stay awake we count big trucks, look for “tree tunnels” and sing silly songs as loud as we possibly can!

  5. One time I was desperate and I had a cup of water in my cup holder. When we got to any stop light or stop sigh I quickly flicked a little water on him. It worked like a charm. Of course, I would never spray him in the face, just his feet. He actually loved it and thought it was pretty funny.
    My son really doesn’t fall asleep in the car that often, but if he did I would honestly think about keeping a little spray bottle with water in it. Again, only to be used when the car is completely stopped.

  6. I have the opposite problem….mine will not sleep in the car, never has, even when we want him to!

  7. Since he’s starting to show interest in reading we’ve started playing the “what sound does (insert letter)” or “what word starts with the letter (insert letter)” game. We work on ABC’s , spelling.. anything to keep him talking and learning..counting cows works too. I let him quiz me and he loves it!

  8. My oldest was terrible about falling asleep in the van, then not napping when we arrived home. I used to bark – randomly – to keep her awake. My poor startled baby. LOL!

  9. I will give our daughter a snack. She’s not going to sleep if she’s munching on cereal!

  10. Getting the other kids to help is key. I need to focus on the road and looking in the rear view mirror or reaching out to poke at my toddler is NOT good for my driving. I hate the short naps as much as anybody but it would be better to have a cranky toddler later in the day than a hurt family because I wasn’t focused. I have seen a ton of mini-vans with drivers that are reaching around (or otherwise focused on kids) to their kids and clearly not paying attention to their driving.

    I don’t want to sound like a jerk here and this is not in response to the other comments ( I haven’t even read them all). I only want to point out a serious safety concern.

    1. Thanks for pointing that out, Krystal. It’s something we all need to remember. For my part, I let someone else do the poking. 😉

  11. My four year old will do the same thing. A ten minute nap will turn into no nap for me later. I agree that a DVD, which he rarely get to watch in the car, will keep him up for a long time. I will also give him my iphone to play a game. When he was smaller it was songs and engaging him in conversation constantly.

  12. I need some help! What car seats do you reccomend? I’m registered on MyRegistry for my baby…and I’m yet to decide which car seat I want. I heard good reviews about the Britax Chaperone Car Seat…but wanted to hear some outside suggestions. Thanks!

  13. Great tips! My sister is always struggling with this with her kids. When I drive them, sometimes I am tempted to just let them sleep. 😉 If I am being a good sister, though, I blast some tunes they know and we all sing along.

  14. I keep upbeat bible songs that they know by heart and can’t resist singing. And I too lie to my children…We also look for monkeys & pink elephants (started by my mom when we were little looking for a pink elephants that hide in the mountains on the way to SLC) 🙂

  15. I am huge on the no napping in the car because even 2 minutes of sleep will keep my kids from napping at the normal time. We sing, open windows and shout out funny sounds to keep them awake. I am the crazy mom in the car making faces and funny sounds so that I can get my 2 hours of quiet time when we get home. So worth the weird looks!

  16. It is so hard when my kids fall asleep in the car but what’s funny is my mother-in-law doesn’t seem to try to keep them awake she just makes the car ride longer. So if they fell asleep on a ten minute ride home she will make my father-in-law drive slowly (well below the speed limit, so the other drivers love them) way past their house then finally turn around and go back. If I happen to be in the car too, it drives me nuts!

  17. I usually turn up the music and get her to dance and sing. If that doesn’t work…lot’s of pokeing!!

  18. The best way I’ve found is to give my sons an i-Pod with a video of a show they like. (A DVD player would have the same effect.) I realize it’s not the best solution for everyone, but it allows me to focus on driving, and because I know it almost always works, I don’t have the panicky feeling that they’ll fall asleep if I don’t do something. I’ve been there, done that, and it’s awful.

  19. So funny! We look for Pooh and friends in the *ahem* “hundred acre woods” as we drive by. LOL This started on a VERY long drive to Disney in FL (from PA) a few years back and now we look for them in all groupings of trees. 😉

  20. It’s so funny you would write about this today, because I just enlisted my own “powers” on a drive home just a few minutes ago. 🙂 Definitely the songs are a big help. I also like to roll the window down or tickle what toes I can safely reach.

  21. HA! I just had that today, coming back from a swim at a friend’s pool who lives 35 minutes away. I reminded him we’d get to see the trains again, alongside the road. Worked until we passed the trains, then he passed out. I then just postponed naptime a bit. It does stink though, in that sometimes then they never want to sleep!

  22. I couldn’t agree with this post more! Those 5 minute naps will throw off the whole day! When my kids were babies, if have another adult passenger we often played tickle games or peek-a-boo. My son would even help with this the peek-a-boo for his little sister and make her giggle! You can’t do those safely alone so I kept some toys that make noise in the car for this purpose. As they have gotten older I find the best trick is to engage them our favorite is silly songs, but we also love to talk about the favorite part of what ever we just did.

    And I also agree with Eleanor, they do have a tendency to do the opposite of what you want them to do! Last Christmas we drove across the country (an 18 hour drive over 2 days w/ most of the driving at night) and our daughter would only sleep 30 minutes at a time!

  23. I agree – those short “power” naps just blow the regular naps out of the water! Whenever we are in the car & she is fading – I will give her a coloring book & a few crayons. She LOVES to color & this is usually enough to keep her awake until we get home!

    What is funny is that our little one will usually always try to nap when we are so close to home. However, when we take a trip & plan departure at her nap time so she will sleep in the car – she, almost always, won’t fall asleep! lol!

    They always keep ya guessing, huh?!

  24. I enlist the help of my other kids to keep the sleepy one(s) awake. I ask them to poke, prod, or talk to the babies. 🙂 Sometimes it works. Sometimes my 3 year old will tell me no when I ask her to keep her sister awake. “She’s so tired mom. Let’s let her sleep.”