How not to forget your child in a hot car

It can happen to anyone

  • Tips on how to avoid the unthinkable
  • Stress and lack of sleep play a role

It’s a tragedy that unfolds about once a year in this country, and on average, 38 times in the United States.

The horrific reality of a small child dying after being left in a hot car happened just last month in Ontario, and there have already been 11 such fatalities this year south of the border.

As temperatures soar well into the upper 30s, it’s worth noting a few habits parents and caregivers can adopt to ward off such tragedies.

Common memory failure

A study from the Hospital for Sick Children concluded children died in a hot car usually because a parent or caregiver forgot they were inside.

Study co-author Dr. Joelene Huber said such accidents can happen to anyone, but stressed that adopting new routines could prevent disaster.

"Never leave a child unattended in a motor vehicle, even for a minute," she said. "That should be a rule that you make for yourself: even if I forgot something in the house, I need to run back in the house with the child."

The majority of the deaths researchers studied involved incidents where a caregiver forgot to drop a child off at daycare.

In the incident last month in Bancroft, Ont., the mother of the child, a school teacher, reportedly was supposed to drop her son off at daycare on her way to work. No one noticed the child was still in the car until the end of the day, when temperatures had surged into the 30s.

Stress, forgetfulness

According to a professor of psychology in the US, the stresses parents face in everyday life can make these memory lapses more likely.

David Diamond, PhD, explained forgetting a child is not a negligence problem but a memory problem. During the summer months families can change their daily routines, and for example, a different parent may be taking their child to care that day. But Dr. Diamond notes people function on autopilot and without an external cue, such as seeing the diaper bag or hearing the baby, the parent may not remember to drop the child off.

Diamond also found sleep deprivation and stress can also increase the potential for a working-memory failure.

Make some new routines

To avoid similar tragedies, Dr. Huber said parents should arrange to have childcare providers call and sound the alarm if one of their charges is unexpectedly absent.

She also suggested parents implement a few habits meant to guard against forgetfulness, such as placing their cellphones in the back seat of the car whenever a child is sitting there.

"You have to get your cellphone at some point, usually, so that's a good way to remember," she said.

Huber also urged parents to adopt the mantra of "look before you lock" and get in the habit of checking the back seat whenever they leave their vehicle regardless of whether they have a child with them at the time.

But she said the onus isn't all on the parents.

The study suggests adding a section on the perils of hot cars to the Rourke Baby Record, which doctors refer to when teaching new parents about child development and safety.

Bystanders have a role to play, too, Huber said, noting people who spot children alone in hot cars should call 911 immediately even if the child seems alright.

With files from The Canadian Press

Published 2022-07-28 by Glenn Hicks

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