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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.

Published July 22, 2015. Last updated July 22, 2015.
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 [email protected].

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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