A new Canadian study is shedding light on just how quickly children can die when trapped in a hot car, and just how disturbingly easy it is for parents to leave their children by accident.
Since 2013, there’s been an average of one child death in a hot car per year in Canada. A 16-month-old boy in Burnaby, B.C. died this way just a few months ago.
The vast majority of these cases occur because parents or caregivers simply forget the child is in the car. But that’s not always what happens: in Edmonton in 2013, a 3-year-old girl climbed into her parents’ unlocked car. She was unconscious when she was found several hours later, and died in hospital.
Part of the reason these deaths are so tragic, the study says, is because they’re preventable. But the study, published in the journal “Paediatrics & Child Health,” which is put out by the Canadian Paediatric Society, also suggests some strategies parents and caregivers can take to avoid what’s been dubbed “forgotten baby syndrome.”
The peer-reviewed study, published by pediatric doctors at the University of Toronto, is the first of its kind to look at the incidences and causes of children dying in hot cars in a specifically Canadian context.
Even the most caring and attentive parents make mistakes
It can be easy to assume that anyone who forgot their child in a car is a neglectful parent. But the majority of parents who have had a child die this way have no history of abuse. And a 2009 Washington Post article reported that it happens to people across all socioeconomic boundaries, in all kinds of professions, regardless of age, gender, or ethnicity.
“The most dangerous mistake a parent or caregiver can make is to think leaving a child alone in a vehicle could never happen to them or their family,” the American advocacy group Kids And Cars says on its website.
Why it happens
The research links the rise in these kinds of deaths to the ubiquity of front seat airbags, which started in the early 1990s. Because airbags are made for adults and their explosive force can be fatal to small kids, and because the passenger seat is considered to be more dangerous, Transport Canada recommends that children under 13 sit in the back seat of a car.
Young kids are more susceptible to heatstroke than adults. What that means is that it takes less time for children than for adults to reach a core temperature above 40 degrees Celsius, which can cause symptoms including delirium and convulsions — and, above a certain temperature, death.
The most dangerous mistake a parent or caregiver can make is to think leaving a child alone in a vehicle could never happen to them.
And a more obvious point raised in the study is that the younger the child, the less less likely it is that they’ll be able to undo their car seat or seatbelt, and unlock and open a car door.
Cars heat up very quickly when it’s hot out. But it’s not necessarily just how quickly this happens, but just how extreme it can be: inside a vehicle, the temperature can increase 22 degrees above the outside temperature, the study explains, with the majority of the rise happening in the first 30 minutes. And despite common perception, leaving the window open doesn’t do much to help.
Factors that contribute to ‘forgotten baby syndrome’
The study runs through some of the circumstances that can increase the chances of a parent accidentally leaving their child in a hot car.
Stress. It’s no surprise that parents are tired, distracted, or burnt out — raising a human is stressful. Stress can affect your memory and your attention span, which can result in a simple mistake that can have horrific consequences.
Change in routine. Many people have a tendency to go into “autopilot,” especially when they’re driving familiar routes or doing tasks they do every day. So, when a parent is performing a routine they’ve performed hundreds of times already — say, driving to work — but they have their child with when they’re used to driving alone, it can be incredibly easy to forget the child is there once they’ve arrived at their workplace.
What you can do to prevent hot car-related deaths in children
Always lock the car doors when the car’s not in use. That way, kids won’t get into a hot car and fall asleep without their parents knowing.
Get used to checking the backseat, even when you’re driving alone. If you make a habit of checking, you’re more likely to catch yourself leaving your car without your child.
Put something else you need in the backseat. If your phone or bag are in the backseat with your child, you’ll be more likely to check the back before you get out of the car.
Put something in the passenger seat to remind yourself. Putting one of your child’s toys in the passenger seat can serve as a reminder that your child is in the car.
Attach a mirror to a rear-facing car seat. If your child is in a car seat that faces backwards, attaching a mirror to their car seat will make them more visible to you in your rearview mirror.
Keep your car keys out of your kids’ reach. This will prevent your kids from getting into a car without you knowing.
Have their caregivers contact you right away if they don’t show up to school or daycare. A number of the Canadian cases involved parents who didn’t realize they had forgotten to drop their children off at daycare.
Check the car right away if your child is missing.
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