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10 Tips For Avoiding The Dreaded Car Nap

I remember when Cullen was an infant, and I’d plan my outings around his nap times.  We’d spend the mornings playing and eating at home, and as soon as he started to look sleepy, I’d buckle him into the Ergo or car seat and we’d be off to run errands or take a long walk around the lake.  My goal was always for him to be asleep while we were out, since I was terrified of him having a meltdown in public.

Now at 18-months, I still plan my outings around his naps, but in a much different way.  It is critical for both his rest and my sanity that he has a good nap at home in his crib.  The rest of our day we are out having fun, but when the eye rubbing starts, we make sure we are home and ready for a nap time.

The biggest obstacle to this is the dreaded car nap.  Toddlers have this amazing ability to fall asleep for 30 seconds in the car, and then somehow recharge as if that replaced their three hour afternoon nap.  This leads to very cranky evenings for both toddlers and parents, and inevitably an early bedtime (and perhaps a large glass of wine).

Cullen and I spend a lot of time on the go, which means car rides to and from our various destinations.  Over many miles and hours spent in the car, I’ve learned a few tips and tricks to help keep even sleepy toddler stay awake long enough to make it home to the crib.

  • 10 Tips To Avoid the Dreaded Car Nap 1 of 11
    car nap collage

    We've all been there.  Watching our toddler bounce around the crib with a second wind of energy, refreshed from mere seconds of sleep in that cozy car seat.  Here are ten ways to avoid the car nap!

  • No sleepy items allowed 2 of 11
    car nap

    This means pacifiers, blankets, lovies, or anything else typically associated with sleepy time.  On longer car rides I really struggle to not give Cullen the pacifier, since it's the key to minimal crying, but I also know that pacifier often equals sleep.  Clearly if the crying gets loud enough, I do not always follow my own rule, and I usually end up paying for it later.

  • Have lots of distractions and entertainment available 3 of 11
    IMG_6582 (427x640)

    The back seat of our car is an arsenal of toddler entertainment.  Books, obnoxious electronic laptop-y type things, shaker bottles, wooden cars, and anything else Cullen might like doing while he rides.  His favorite thing to do is page through books, which makes his mama very proud.  I keep the bag of toys and books directly behind the center console, so if he tosses his current toy of out the seat, I can reach around and toss him a new one without ever taking my eyes off the road.  

  • Pack mess-free, safe snacks 4 of 11
    IMG_6586 (640x427)

    Cullen loves to eat.  Even when he's tired, the promise of a favorite snack can buy us an extra few minutes when we're stuck in traffic or hitting every red light.  I have a strict "no cheerios in the car" rule, but I'm still always armed with other mess-free snacks in case of emergency.  We have a few different snack cups that keep Cullen from spilling or throwing food everywhere, and I usually pack them with chunks of rice cake, pieces of dried fruit, or raisins.  This is not the time to hand him a peanut butter sandwich that will be smeared all over the seat.  It's important to make sure whatever you are offering, it's something your child is very comfortable eating in order to minimize the chance of choking (since it will be hard for you to quickly jump out and assist!).  

  • Offer a drink 5 of 11
    IMG_6585 (427x640)

    If your kid is anything like mine, he loves drinking and loves having his own cup.  We never leave home without at least one straw cup of water, and often we have a backup smoothie cup or thermos bottle stashed in the diaper bag.  We personally love Zoli cups because they don't leak and are essentially impossible for Cullen to spill (despite his best efforts).  Drinking keeps him hydrated and usually gives him a slight energy boost if he's getting sleepy!

  • Sing some favorite songs 6 of 11
    sesame street

    When all else fails and Cullen is getting grumpy or sleepy, I resort to a little sing-a-long concert.  I ask him if he wants to sing a song, and he always says "yeah!" followed by "elmo? elmo?" -- which is my cue to sing the Sesame Street theme song.  Other favorites are all the jams from Sid the Science Kid.  Too bad he doesn't like country music yet!

  • Offer some screentime 7 of 11
    electronics

    This is my least favorite method of car distraction, but I will admit that it definitely works.  On really long or particularly rough trips, I'll offer Cullen the iPad (if I have it with me) or my cell phone (Elmo videos) to use in his car seat.  You have to be careful with the cell phone though, unless you have a feature that locks into a "kids only" section.  The last time I did this Cullen sent someone a text with the word "butt."  That actually happened. 

  • Play with the windows (no, seriously) 8 of 11
    IMG_6584 (640x427)

    One of my friends tipped me off to this one, and it works really well.  If Cullen is starting to look sleepy, I'll crack the window next to his seat.  It immediately makes his eyes get wide, and he points and says "up up!" until I put it back up again.  With door controls for all windows, it's very easy to put the window up and down without ever taking your eyes off the road.  Cullen loves to feel the breeze on a warm, sunny day and the fresh air helps keep him awake!  

  • Break up the trip 9 of 11
    break it up

    If your toddler is looking particularly sleepy and you fear those eyelids are shutting down, consider stopping for something quick.  Top off the tank with gas, grab an iced coffee at a nearby coffee shop, or pick up the dry cleaning you keep forgetting.  I've found that even if Cullen doesn't get out of his car seat, stopping the car and opening the door can refresh him long enough to get home happy and awake.  Today we made a quick stop at a bakery for bread (which we needed anyway!) , and it definitely helped!

  • Time it right 10 of 11
    time it right

    Ultimately it all comes down to timing.  Pay attention to your child's cues and signals, and make a mental note of when he or she seems to be getting sleepy.  They key is to get out of the car before those signals start, so you don't risk them dozing off while you rush home.  This is obviously easiest once your child is on a more predictable schedule.  If you wait too long to head home, you end up in a situation like this...

  • Above all else, drive safely 11 of 11
    drive safely

    None of these tips matter at all if you are feeling distracted or unable to concentrate on driving.  Ultimately, if you aren't able to distract and entertain your child while keeping your eyes and focus on the road, it isn't worth trying to keep them awake.  The bigger goal is to get everyone home safely, whether they are awake or asleep.  

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