How to Keep a Toddler Awake in the Car

Every parent knows the dreaded scenario: It is almost naptime; you are so very close to getting home… and then your toddler passes out in the car seat. This poses the question: how to keep a toddler awake in the car? Normally if they fall asleep, it is bad news for two reasons.

First, making the transition from car sleep to crib sleep can be a nightmare. I cannot tell you how many times my daughter has taken a ten-minute nap in the car, only to refuse to sleep the rest of the afternoon in her crib!

Secondly, every minute they are asleep in the car is one minute less for you to be getting things done at the house. Here are my best tips and tricks to keep a toddler awake in the car on the drive home.

1. Strike up conversation

The conversation is an easy, effective way to keep your child stimulated in the car. (Note: Until your child has built up their vocabulary, “conversations” are pretty one-sided, so it is best to wait until they can respond!) 

As soon as those eyelids start to droop, I immediately chirp up with questions and commands to keep her engaged. 

  • When she was first becoming verbal, I would ask her to repeat after me. For example: “Can you say, Mommy?” “Mommy!” “Can you say bicycle?” “Bsldkfjcle” ;) 
  • As she continued to develop, I would make sounds, like moo, and ask her to identify the animal. 
  • Now that she is almost two, she can answer questions independently, so I will often ask her to tell me what she sees out the window, whether or not she had a fun morning, etc. 

2. Play a game

A game of peek-a-boo can go a long way, my friends. Using the mirror facing her car seat, I can easily glance in my rear-view mirror while asking “Where did Arden go? There she is!” as she gleefully covers and then exposes her eyes. 

If she is not in the mood for that, we will act out what her teachers at school call “dramatic play,” such as roaring like a dinosaur. She especially enjoys roaring back and forth with me, which also helps her get out the last bit of energy before hopefully taking a nice, long nap at home. 

Playing is a surefire way to keep her excited and happy, giving her a second wind to make it from the car to the crib. Whenever verbal games are not quite cutting it, I keep a few toys in the front seat that I can reach back and hand her at a red light. 

3. Sing songs

We love listening to the radio or Spotify in the car, but I have noticed if she passively listens to a song, she is quicker to doze off. Instead, to keep a toddler awake in the car, I will initiate a round of Old McDonald, Wheels on the Bus, Twinkle Twinkle Little Star or Itsy-Bitsy Spider. Sometimes she will chime involuntarily, and other times I will prompt her, especially by saying “... and on that farm he had a ____?” where she will gleefully proclaim: Cat, dog, sheep, pig, cow or pony!

How do you prevent your toddler from falling asleep too soon in the car? Or, if they fall asleep regularly despite your best efforts, what are your top transfer tips?

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