Disclaimer: I am not a certified CPST however I am very well versed in car seats. When asked if car naps are SAFE, the short answer is NO. Sometimes, we don’t have control over our kids falling asleep, or a nap needs to happen in the car and the “reward” outweighs the risk.
First, let’s talk about safety.
Did you know that almost half of all car seats and booster seats are installed improperly? On top of that, many more children are not restrained properly in the seat. The improper use of car seats is not only a danger when you get into an accident, but can be a danger if the child falls asleep in the seat. The biggest concern is cutting off the child’s airway, especially with small newborns and infants who do not have much control of their necks and heads. To ensure your seat is installed properly, I highly suggest finding a certified Child Passenger Safety Technician to double check it for you.
Once you have determined that the seat is installed correctly, you need to make sure that your child is properly secured into the seat AT ALL TIMES. NEVER loosen the straps to let them be more comfortable, NEVER let them sleep (or otherwise) in the seat unbuckled, and ALWAYS transfer them out of the seat once you have arrived at your destination.
The Car Nap
Some parents love them, some parents hate them. I am usually in the “hates them” camp. Nothing can ruin a real nap at home more than falling asleep for 10 minutes in the car. However, sometimes they are needed to survive a drive up to Grampy’s house! So what would be some considerations for the risk/reward of car naps?
They get the sleep they need. Let’s face it, when you are in the car for a long time, the car nap can be a lifesaver. If your kid would otherwise be missing their nap due to the situation – get your nap on, kid. A car nap is definitely better than dealing with an overtired kid who has skipped a much-needed nap.
Disruption of the schedule. I am super strict on my sleep schedules for my kids. I HATE to deviate from those schedules because my sweet little angels turn into angry hyperactive devils when they are overtired. You have little control over when your kid falls asleep in the car. You have to figure out if they need some time in the car before they doze or if they fall asleep as soon as you get moving – this will decide when you leave for things (assuming you want to keep them on schedule). My kids are super stubborn. They are not huge car sleepers. My youngest, however, will eventually fall asleep. When we are traveling anywhere, we have to leave right after a wake up, so then he might just fall asleep at his regular nap time.
Too much sleep. Some kids can not stay awake in the car, or they sleep for too long. Some people think this is a blessing, but if the kiddo is getting too much sleep during the day you are going to have difficulty getting your kid to bed at bedtime and getting them to stay asleep until their regular wake up time in the morning. If you have a “blessing” like this, try to keep car rides limited to when they would be napping and/or making sure they do not stay asleep for longer than a typical nap would last for them.
The Transfer. Some kids will stay asleep when you stop the car, and even continue to sleep as you slide them out of the car seat and into their crib. I have not yet met a child like this. You are more than welcome to try. If it works, congratulations! However, most kids are going to wake up and they, most likely, are not going to want to go back to sleep. If they had only a short nap before the attempted transfer, keep an eye out for signs of overtiredness and plan on an early bedtime.
The final conclusion here is you need to do what is best for you. Does the reward outweigh the risk for you? Personally, I reserve car naps for our long car rides (over 3 hrs – which occur every couple months as most of my family is out of state). It’s nice to get to my Dad’s house and not have the kids be overtired messes and need to go immediately for a nap that they won’t take because they want to see Grampy.
As a sleep consultant, I will always recommend against car naps if possible. It is best for naps to occur on their back, on a flat firm surface. We all know in real life it just isn’t possible. If you decide to do a car nap (or your child decides for you), make sure all safety measures are in place. Try to minimize the amount of sleep your child is getting in the car and try not to make it a habit. If you do it, try to let them have a full nap, not wake them after 10 minutes to move into their crib because that is likely not going to end well for anyone.