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Keeping Your Kids Awake In the Car

Keeping Your Kids Awake In the Car

By Amalah

Dear Almighty Amalah,

I need a bit of assistance. How the hell do I keep kids awake in the car?! Maybe some background info will help.

Kiddos are 6 and 4. We are busy bees all summer, with morning swim lessons 5 days a week and a whole slew of other things going on in the afternoon; normally playdates, day camps, trips to the park or occasionally the zoo. Ya know, stuff kids like. With all these afternoon things, it’s understandable that the kids get pretty worn out, and fall asleep in the car on the way home.


These car naps are happening pretty late in the day, like 5:00ish or later, and they’re sleeping for the entire duration of our normally 30+ minute car rides. Which means that the edge is completely taken off. Which means that they take FOR. EV. ER. to go to sleep at night. Which would be fine and all, if they could sleep in a bit in the morning to make up for the staying up late at night, but because we have morning swim lessons, I have to go in and wake them up in the morning so that they’ve got time to eat breakfast and get ready for swimming. So they aren’t getting enough sleep at night, because they’re falling asleep in the car, because they aren’t getting enough sleep at night….it goes on.

Bedtime is 7:30-8, and while 4yo generally will zonk out within 15 minutes, they share a room and 6yo wants to be UP. ALL. NIGHT. and keeps her awake, normally to the point of a crying 4yo coming out of their room at 9:30 saying “I’m so tired but she won’t wet me sweeeeeeeeep!!!”, so currently we have to let her sleep in our bed until her sister falls asleep, normally around 11 or so. (Crappy solution, I know, but she needs a good night’s rest so badly in order to not need that 60-90 minute after lunch nap we worked so hard to kick after her 4th birthday in May). We’ve tried putting 6yo to bed after her sister falls asleep, but she goes out of her way to wake her sister up so she has someone to play with, either by talking to her, throwing stuff at her, or kicking her bed frame/wall so that the banging wakes her up. She’s just a peach at night, clearly.

I’ve tried everything I can think of to keep them awake in the car, so that they aren’t getting a pre-dinner nap that will lead to them being up all night. I’ve tried books, toys, food (and they aren’t normally allowed to eat in the car unless it’s a super special circumstances), music, talking to them, everything. I have actually driven down the highway with all the windows down, blasting Karma Chameleon (a weird family favorite song, I ain’t complaining) so loudly that I couldn’t hear myself speak, and they both STILL passed out. The only thing that works is me aggressively and consistently shaking their legs, which isn’t easy or safe to do while driving. The only other thing I can think of is getting a squirt bottle and spraying water in their faces to wake them up…but for some reason I don’t see that going well. (Also, I don’t have one of those fancy cars with built in DVD players or anything like that so I can’t turn on a movie, and after they broke someone’s phone they are no longer allowed to play with phones or iPads).

PLEASE help me fix our car rides (or bedtime, whichever you think may be more broken) and keep them awake! I’d hate for us to turn into “those people” who can’t stay anywhere later than 3PM at risk of the kids falling asleep in the car too late, but oh my god they need to sleep at night or we may not survive this summer.

You know, I think it’s really good and admirable that you imposed serious consequences after they broke someone’s phone. That’s a big deal and a good lesson in responsibility, especially since far too many kids treat expensive electronics with the same regard as a hunk of Fisher Price plastic. And we’re all too reliant on screens in general these days, especially when it’s more about our convenience and making our own lives easier rather than providing children with enriching, high-quality media YEAH YOU KNOW WHAT GIVE THEM BACK THE SCREEEEEEENS.

You’ve really tried just about every trick out there. And I feel you — OH GOD I FEEL YOU — on how badly the late catnap in the car can eff with the rest of your evening. And the next day, even. And the day after that. It really does snowball and screw with everybody’s sleep routine. There’s no bedtime fix when they’ve taken the edge off too late in the day.

I used to scream sing-a-longs and blast music at my kids. I’d ask them the stupidest, silliest questions I could think of (like if there was a dog in a car nearby I’d ask them if it was a giraffe, or if my hair was turning purple, or if I should take my shoes off and hang them on my ears). I’d put the windows up and down repeatedly to blast them on and off with air to perk them up. I tried snacks and drinks (and usually just ended up with a conked-out child and a ton of spills to clean up). One time I brought a pile of plush Angry Bird toys with me and threw them at their heads any time I saw them dozing off.

Now? I pop in a DVD and hand them some wireless headphones. Works every time, and allows me to keep my full attention on the road in front of me, rather than on my kids eyelids behind me.

(For the record, our DVD player remains unused 99% of the time. We use it ONLY on very long trips, so when I pop the screen down for a “short” drive because I’m trying to keep someone awake it’s a HUGE EXCITING THING.)

You don’t have a built-in DVD player, but you can absolutely buy one for your car. They’re a good travel investment in general, for long road trips or plane/train rides. Or you can just buy an over-the-headrest mount for your iPad on Amazon. That way you’re not technically going back on the phone-breaking punishment, since they won’t actually handle the tablet themselves.

Or you can just tell them that the car is the only place they’re allowed to play with phones or iPads, and that how they behave with them there (no dropping, no rough handling, etc.), will be the first step or test into lifting the ban other places. This kinda makes sense — they’re buckled into carseats, so unable to run around with it or drop it on a hard surface or spill something on it. It’ll be A Big Special Car Thing and they’ll likely stay extra engaged with it, even more so than watching a DVD.

I know, I know. Freaking screens. Little blinky electronic babysitters. Solving problems and making parents’ lives easier one preschool app at a time. You totally have my permission and approval to use them to solve this particular problem.

About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch


Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Ama...

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it’s pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.

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  • deanna

    July 22, 2015 at 11:59 am

    Maybe adjust your afternoons so you’re not in the car at 5:00ish. 

  • trish

    July 22, 2015 at 12:08 pm

    I’m jealous. Mine puke if they try to use any kind of screen in the car. 

  • Cassie

    July 22, 2015 at 12:24 pm

    Is cutting down on the afternoon activities an option? Or going to three-days a week swim lessons? It sounds like A LOT of stuff for that age group. 

    And maybe something that could quietly occupy the six year old so she doesn’t wake up her sister? Like a book and a mini light? 

  • Caroline

    July 22, 2015 at 12:46 pm

    I must be the harshest parent out but I can tell you now that if my older kid woke my younger one deliberately and on a consistent basis for any reason whatsoever, a serious consequence would occur. I know it’s unfashionable, but a smacked bottom would probably be my go-to if serious warnings did not work. Your younger kid is being terrorised by the older one and the solution is to dance around the older one and pander? No. 8pm is quite late enough for a 6 year old to be going to bed. I get that car naps are a problem, and yes a screen-time thing might work, which is a great idea… but the story with the deliberate waking is a sign that Someone feels totally fine doing what she likes and tough for everyone else. In any event, I’d get a handle on that little problemola.

    • Myriam

      July 22, 2015 at 1:04 pm

      I wouldn’t use physical punishment, but I would definitely work on the night time routine and misbehavior on the part of the older one. I would think about losing priviledges the next day (like allowing the younger one to watch the screen in the car, with headphones, but not the older one). I would let her read a book quietly in her bed, but if she wakes her sister up, there would be a consequence. What about setting up a bed for your youngest in your room from the get-go while you work it out?

      • Isabel Kallman

        Isabel Kallman

        July 22, 2015 at 1:17 pm

        How about a small reward for the oldest if she can go to bed without disrupting the household? It’s along the same lines and basically rewards good behavior rather than gives attention to the negative behavior.

        • Myriam

          July 22, 2015 at 1:48 pm

          You know what Isabelle, I just assumed that it had been tried already, but if it hasn’t, I agree with you, a reward-chart would be a good idea.

        • Kerry

          July 22, 2015 at 6:25 pm

          I very respectfully disagree. I think it can lead to very undesirable results when we give children prizes for doing things they *should* be doing anyway. (Or basically teaching them that they can be total jerks unless someone ponies up a bribe to make them stop). I don’t ask the cops to give me special recognition or tax breaks for driving the speed limit. An expensive traffic ticket (and a relative who was recently injured in a bad accident) worked REALLY QUICKLY to make me slow the heck down. Totally agree with you Caroline. I don’t negotiate with terrorists, lol.

          • Isabel Kallman

            Isabel Kallman

            July 22, 2015 at 10:45 pm

            We’ll have to agree to disagree on this one. There is much evidence-based research that shows that children respond to behavior modification techniques that praise them for their desired behaviors rather than giving negative attention. In this case, the six year old is disrupting her sister’s bedtime. If she can show restraint and show that she can make good choices by not bothering her sister she should be praised for that improvement in her behavior. A way to reinforce that is with a reward-based earnings chart. There doesn’t need to be a “prize” at the end. In fact, none of my son’s behavior charts were ever tied to physical prizes, instead they were tied to bigger-boy privileges that he wanted to earn.

          • Isabel Kallman

            Isabel Kallman

            July 22, 2015 at 11:10 pm

            I would also suggest you read M’s great comment below. It’s meant to respond to your comment here but was posted by mistake below.

      • MR

        July 22, 2015 at 5:16 pm

        Yes, this! My 6 year old and 4 year olds share a room. We stagger their bed times, but the older one knows she is not allowed to wake up her sister. The whole “solution” of taking the 4 year old out of the room kind of baffles me, as it doesn’t teach the 6 year old a darn thing. Hand the kid a few books and a flashlight (there are some great rechargeable kid ones on Amazon), and tell them they don’t have to go to sleep, but they need to read quietly without disturbing their sister, and to turn off the light when she is tired. That will make her feel important and special. And try the reward chart for not bothering people. I’ve also been known to help my kids burn off energy before bed/carrides/anywhere they need to be able to sit still for a while, by having them run around or do jumping jacks and whatnot. Just a quick Simon Says type workout, to get as much of that pent up energy out. That might help the 6 year old before bed.

        • M

          July 22, 2015 at 9:25 pm

          Just food for thought, Kerry. I used to think the exact same thing, but I recently read the Kazdin Method of Parenting, and he has a very persuasive and very well-researched argument about using an intensive sticker chart and reward system to recognize/reward good behavior. According to his methods and his (clinical) research, rewarding specific examples of good behavior in the short term works to establish effective long-term habits. And often times a child’s defiant behavior is simply that: a bad habit a family has (unintentionally but strongly) reinforced.

          • Isabel Kallman

            Isabel Kallman

            July 22, 2015 at 10:56 pm

            Very well-said.

          • Kerry

            July 23, 2015 at 12:00 am

            I definitely get what you’re saying M, thanks for your thoughtful comment. As an educator, I absolutely agree with noticing and rewarding good behavior. LOVE sticker charts for little ones when it comes to doing chores, etc.

             Isabel, you’re right, let’s just agree to disagree. 🙂 Somehow it still just gives me an icky feeling that parents should resort to bribing a child to make them stop throwing things at a sibling and kicking their bed. Sorry, I think it’s really unhealthy to teach children at an early age that they deserve to *get something* every time they actually follow the expected rules and refrain from treating others poorly. “Timmy, sugar pie, will you pretty please stop hitting the dog?” “Hmm, what will you give me if I stop?” Since when are we afraid to tell our kids NO and give appropriate consequences? I will continue to raise my children to have self control without expecting material gratification in return. But that’s just me. Cheers!

    • Sarah

      July 22, 2015 at 2:46 pm

      My thought too…these sound like some seriously over scheduled kids!

  • Ali

    July 22, 2015 at 2:00 pm

    That sounds like a LOT of activity for kids without a nap.  I wonder if they need a short nap in between swim classes and afternoon activities?  Or just fewer afternoon activities if the swimming has to be every day?  I get wanting to be go, go, go, but I think that would wear me out!  In general, my kids are much happier when they are well rested, so they idea of keeping them awake through the ride when they are clearly tired doesn’t strike me as right–it seems like sleep at another time of day may be a better solution.

  • Tiffany

    July 22, 2015 at 2:59 pm

    Car sleeping is The Worst. I have two of my own kids, us four Dayhome kids, and every time we’d go out for a morning field trip, they’d all fall asleep for 15 or so minutes on the way home and then they were either impossible to get back into the house unreasonably refreshed and would refuse to have a proper nap, it would be party party party all afternoon until the crash began. And that was never pretty.
     One day they started mimicking my panicked pleas of “Don’t fall asleep!” And ever since, busting whoever was dozing off became a game and it works for us! It keeps most of them alert and perky, ready to catch the dozers out, and having five people shouting “Don’t fall asleep!” wakes up the sleepy heads. 

  • Jeannie

    July 22, 2015 at 3:05 pm

    If it were me, I’d also tend to curtail activities in the afternoon. I’ve found that even just reduced activity every second or third day would make a difference.

    (And I also gotta admit: if my older deliberately woke my younger even once or twice, there would be CONSEQUENCES. In my home that’s loss of screen time for him, as that’s his language. But definitely something, as it impacts the younger and needs addressing.)

  • Stephanie

    July 22, 2015 at 4:35 pm

    I guess I’m wondering why you stopped letting your younger one nap? What’s the rationale behind that? My older daughter is starting first grade in a couple weeks and several of her friends still nap in the afternoon. Now, neither of mine has napped since they turned three, but it sounds like both need some downtime. If it’s not 3PM, then maybe it’s an hour break after lunch. I would LOVE if my little still napped (and she’s barely 3).

    And as others have said, if my older daughter (or my younger one for that matter) were waking the other one up, there would be major consequences. That is NOT okay. I can’t believe you let her get away with that.

  • MR

    July 22, 2015 at 5:21 pm

    Well, definitely work on the 6 yr old not waking up the 4 yr old. But, also, before whatever lesson/event it is that ends at 5pm, make sure you are giving them a snack so their blood sugar doesn’t crash. Fruit snacks work best for some reason for my kids. One fruit snack before they go into class gets them through the class and home without them needing food after in the car.

  • K

    July 22, 2015 at 6:10 pm

    Good advice from Amy – screens can sometimes be your friend. We heavily limit how much screen time our kiddo gets, and yet, sometimes it’s a healthier option than no rest at night and a crabby kiddo for the following day. And like a few other folks, I’m wondering if part of the tired thing is that they are over scheduled a bit. We are a really active family, and I still try to limit afternoon stuff out of the house (that requires lots of driving or is really stimulating, like the zoo) to just once or twice a week. Swim class in the morning and regular activities every day or every other day seems like a lot, especially for the four year old. 

  • Meaghan

    July 22, 2015 at 7:33 pm

    On busy days when we swim, plus do an additional activity, my 6 and 4 year olds regularly go to bed for the night by 6, often 5:30! That sounds like a lot of scheduling, maybe dial it back a bit and not be in the car at that time. My kids don’t share a room, except on vacation and it is pretty awful then, but 6 years old is old enough to know better, in my opinion.

  • Allison

    July 24, 2015 at 5:09 pm

    What about a kid tablet instead of letting the play on your iphone/tablet? We have a leap pad, which has educational games as well as fun ones, plus since it is for kids they are way more durable. Maybe the rewards chart for the 6yr old’s bedtime antics could be to get a tablet for her?

  • Pumpkin

    July 24, 2015 at 6:15 pm

    As someone who was tormented by a sibling throughout childhood with very little parental involvement (we’re in our thirties and I’m still her verbal punching bag if she feels the need to feel better about herself), for heaven’s sake, get the older kid to stop tormenting her sister. NOW. Trust me. You don’t want your kids not to be able to stand each other when they’re married with kids. I won’t even go into how it feels when your parents LET your sibling verbally abuse you.

    And can we say overscheduled kids?! Yeah, it’s stuff kids like (my kid would LOVE IT if we went to the zoo every day), but your job as mom is to provide them with what they NEED over what they WANT. And your kids are crying out for some down time.

  • S

    July 27, 2015 at 12:02 pm

    I feel like this has a really obvious and much easier solution: Give the 6-year-old melatonin at 7pm to reestablish the nighttime sleep and break the cycle. after a few nights, you’ll be back on track.

  • Grammy

    August 2, 2015 at 2:52 am

    Others have addressed this, but I’ll state it again — this seems like a lot of overscheduling. I see this with my grandson on a regular basis because my daughter feels that he must have as many “enrichment activities” as can be crammed into a week. He is six and pretty much konks out every time he gets into a car around 5 p.m. because he is just exhausted, then has trouble getting to sleep at a reasonable hour and is tired in the morning.

    I’m not trying to be a smartass, but I really don’t understand the trend toward so many scheduled activities for children today, and I’d sincerely appreciate if some of you moms could give me a hint about why the trend is to have young children involved in so many activities. Is there some kind of research since I was raising kids that says they don’t need frequent opportunities to self-direct their play time and spend several afternoons a week playing at home (or wherever they are cared for during the day)? Not having to travel someplace (to classes and play dates and parks and lessons) can encourage children to use their imagination while also allowing them to rest a little (brains as well as bodies) and re-energize.

  • Sarah

    August 3, 2015 at 1:24 am

    Yeah, I’d lay off the jackhammer scheduling. 6yo might be feisty at night partly because she needs some time to be self-directed. I would have hated to be this busy when I was a kid. I NEEDED to play, especially during my precious breaks from school. 

  • Kim too

    August 7, 2015 at 8:30 pm

    Wow, the judgement, it is strong on this thread.  And it seriously gives me chills when educators think hitting is a great way to teach kids anything.
    When my kids are keeping each other awake, we bend over backward accommodating the other one.  My kids live for the chance to have “sleepovers” with adults, so in my house, the little one would be getting sleepovers and the big one would be on her own. And at this point, that would be invoked the moment I heard a squawk from the Big.  There would also be a consequence in the morning, because that does need to be shut down.
    I have a kid with sleep apnea, and we are always fighting inappropriate naps.  My go-tos are: screen and snacks. Nothing else works, and neither do those, 100%. Sometimes we have to give in and let her stay up later. So we build a little more flexibility in where we can to accommodate that. (she’s got a CPAP,but still – she still loves her a nap.)