All babies sleep in the car! At least, that’s what I was told as a new mom. The problem was, neither of my daughters got that memo! They weren’t lulled to peaceful dreamland by the soft hum of my ’08 Toyota. Instead, both babies would stay awake and cry, as they got more and more overtired. The well-meaning comments by other parents that my daughters should be able to sleep in the car drove me batty! What was wrong with them or me or our car seat, etc, etc, etc? Having a baby who doesn’t sleep in the car can definitely add to the feelings of isolation that being a new parent sometimes brings. If your baby has trouble sleeping in the car (either difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep), just know that you are not alone.
Both of my girls struggled to sleep in the car as babies. My oldest would fall asleep and startle herself awake 3 minutes later. She’d get a total of an interrupted 10-minute nap and was pretty cranky afterward. On her one year birthday, my husband and I decided to take a 16-hour car trip home to visit our families and celebrate with them. We decided we would drive through the night because surely every baby sleeps in the car! Two hours into the drive with a screaming, non-sleeping baby and a very stressed mommy, we changed course and stopped in the Smokey Mountains for an impromptu weekend stay. We ended up having a great time, even though it was super disappointing not being with our family for her birthday.
I’m happy to report that my oldest daughter is now 3 and will happily take a 1 hour nap in the car. She thinks it’s fun and an adventure to sleep while we are driving someplace. When my younger daughter was born, I thought, for sure, I couldn’t have two children who wouldn’t nap in the car. That was true until she hit the 4-month sleep regression and refused to sleep while driving. Just this past October, we took a 7-hour trip to see my dad and she took two out of her three naps in the car. It took a lot of work, trial and error, and the occasional missed nap, but both girls now sleep well in the car.
Here are 5 tips that I have learned that helped my 2 children become better car nappers:
- If possible, give the first nap at home- The first nap of the day is considered the most restorative, so if your timing allows, let your baby take her first nap at home in her bed. This nap often sets the stage for the rest of the day. Then, if going on a trip, hit the road right when she wakes.
- Allow time to fall to sleep- 30 minutes before you want your baby/toddler to be asleep, pull over and do your sleepy-time routine, including a feeding (if needed). Try to be back on the road driving 20 or so minutes before you want him to be asleep, so there is plenty of time to unwind and fall asleep before becoming overtired.
- Bring familiar things for her nap- Having your baby/toddler’s lovey, special blanket, a portable sound machine (I use an app on my phone), pajamas, etc, can really make falling asleep in the car more comforting to her. These items, in addition to carrying out a mini-nap routine, will help cue her that it’s sleepy time.
- Help with startling- Some babies will fall asleep in the car but then wake shortly after from startling, even when the Moro startle reflex is gone. After trial and error, you’ll find if your baby does better falling to sleep with no one in the backseat with him, or if he does better when someone is sitting next to him. If your baby prefers you being there (my youngest daughter wanted me next to her), you can wrap a blanket tightly around his body and arms and lay your arm over him. In desperation on one trip, I even put a light children’s book over my daughter’s arms to prevent her from startling, and it worked! Of course, if you try something like this, you want to be sure it’s small and lightweight for safety reasons and, preferably, that someone is constantly monitoring baby while she’s sleeping.
- Block the light- Consider a SnoozeShade! They help block out the sun and make it darker in your baby’s car seat. This works well for bucket seats.
If you decide to try to help your non-car-napping baby/toddler learn to sleep in the car, just remember that it will likely take time, patience, and some trial and error. Of course, we’re always here if you find you need more support, tips or another perspective. And, be sure to NEVER leave your baby unattended sleeping in the car seat as that is unsafe. Some children, unfortunately, never get good at sleeping in the car. However, many babies can learn this skill (even if it’s not perfect, at first). With my older daughter when she was learning to car nap, we would give her a half-hour to fall asleep and, if she wasn’t sleeping at that point, we’d pull over to a park and nap her in our arms or the carrier. With time, we were needing to pull over less and less frequently. Some children outgrow their resistance to car naps as they get older, so don’t be afraid to try it again a couple of weeks down the road. If your baby ends up missing a nap, just make sure to offer an earlier bedtime that night…and know that this too shall pass. So, hang in there!