No parent wants to believe they could accidentally leave their kid in a hot car during the summer. But it happens every year, and it happens to good parents who love their children very much.
This is a hard topic to discuss. Last summer alone, 44 children died across the U.S. because they were left in a vehicle. It’s a heart-breaking epidemic, but it can be prevented.
Parents should realize how quickly a car can heat up after it’s turned off – the inside temperature can jump 20 degrees Fahrenheit in just 10 minutes. Even prior air-conditioning doesn’t help. Within five minutes, a vehicle’s interior temperature reaches that of the outside air. On a 68-degree day, a car can easily reach 110 degrees inside.
Children are even more at risk for damages caused by extreme heat because their little bodies absorb heat more quickly and have trouble cooling off. Sweating won’t cool down an infant or young child in the same way that it does an adult. In addition, a child may not be able to extract himself from a car seat or take off his or her clothes to help their body adjust.
Parents of younger children should also keep in mind that they can easily fall asleep in the car and may not make a peep. This can contribute to parents forgetting a baby is in the backseat in the first place.
The Injury Prevention Center at Arkansas Children’s Hospital has some statistics on how children die as a result of being left unattended in a vehicle. More than half – 52 percent – are "forgotten" by a caregiver. Another 29 percent play in an unattended vehicle and are trapped. Sadly 18 percent of these deaths occur when a child is intentionally left alone.
Research has shown that a change in routine often plays a part in the tragedies that involve caregivers forgetting a child. Even a small change in routine can cause us to lose focus and overlook important responsibilities. It can absolutely happen to anyone if preventive measures aren’t taken.
Parents should never leave a child alone in a car – not even for a minute. Always take children with you when you exit your vehicle.
While it may sound simple, some sort of reminder is especially important for helping us prevent these situations. Parents should put something they know they’ll need at their next destination – a handbag, briefcase or cell phone for instance – in the back seat. This actually forces the parent to turn around and see the child.
Another easy reminder would be to set an alarm on a smartphone or calendar that will alert families to check and make sure a child has been dropped off at daycare or the appropriate location.
We also want parents to teach their children not to play in vehicles. It’s easier than we imagine for a child to become trapped in a car and not understand how to let themselves out. Also be sure to keep keys and remotes out of children’s reach; we know from experience that little ones love to play with them.
If you don’t have small children at home, you can still help protect them by being vigilant in parking lots this summer. If you see a child alone in a vehicle, call 911 immediately and if possible rescue the child after receiving emergency instructions. Wait by the car so that emergency medical services can find you quickly.
It can also be helpful to know the symptoms of heatstroke in children: dizziness, disorientation, agitation, confusion, sluggishness, seizures, hot skin that is flushed and not sweaty, loss of consciousness, rapid heartbeat and hallucinations.
There will certainly be families who read this column and think, "I could never leave a child in a hot car. How could anyone do that?" It is easier than you may realize, and the majority of children that this happens to have loving, protective and attentive parents.
It’s sad and terrifying that a simple change in routine can be a fatal mistake. Take action this summer to ensure the children you love – or even those of someone you’ve never met – are protected from vehicular heatstroke.
Another tip: The MyACH iPhone app available from the Apple iTunes store can help you keep all your children’s medical information in one safe place in the event of an emergency. Download it free today.
Sam Smith, MD, is surgeon in chief at Arkansas Children’s Hospital and a professor of Surgery at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. He writes a column each week covering a variety of kids’ medical concerns. If you have a topic you’d like him to consider addressing, email email@example.com.