Heatstroke is the leading cause of non-crash, vehicle-related deaths among children. Unfortunately, even great parents can forget a child in the back seat. According to research, about 37 children in the United States die of heatstroke each year.
How it Happens
“When a child is left alone in a hot car, the majority of the time, it is because a parent or caregiver forgot they were there,” Janna Day, Pediatric Injury Prevention Coordinator for UnityPoint Health said.
“Many babies and little kids fall asleep while riding in the car, so they aren’t making any noise to remind a parent or caregiver they are there. In addition, babies and young children ride rear-facing so it’s hard to see a child with a glance in the rear-view mirror or even turning around to look in the back seat.”
Oftentimes, when a child is forgotten in a car, it’s because of an altered daily routine. For example, Mom usually takes the baby to daycare, but today, Dad is going to handle the task. It is usually out of Dad’s normal daily routine to take baby to daycare; so there’s a higher chance he’ll forget and drive straight to work instead. Day encourages parents to create reminders that baby is in the back seat.
- Place your purse or briefcase on the floor in the backseat, so you have to open the rear door to get it when you get out of the car.
- When you get into the car, put your left shoe in the rear-seat, so you have to get it from the backseat before walking away from your car.
- Set a reminder/alarm on your phone.
- If your child attends daycare, ask your provider to call you if your child is late and encourage your daycare to make this a policy for all children.
- Check out the devices on the market. Some attach to the driver’s door and sounds a reminder when you open it.
- Some car seat manufacturers are starting to equip their car seats with sensors. Some companies make devices you can buy to attach to your car seat that may send a message to a bracelet you’re wearing. However, Day says to be wary of any “aftermarket” devices that are added to car seats. She suggests contacting the manufacturer before modifying the seat in any way.
- If you’re in the market for a new vehicle, some makers are developing seat sensors.
An Often Unnoticed Danger
Parents and caregivers who leave their cars out in the hot sun should also watch that their child doesn’t get burned from the scolding parts of the car seat. We all know how hot steering wheels and seatbelts get, and car seats are no different. Sensitive skin on children is especially susceptible to burns from seats.
“To keep your vehicle cool while parked, try to leave it in a shaded area to keep direct sunlight away. If you use sun shades, be sure it is the kind that clings or sticks onto the vehicle window rather than one with hard parts that affixes to the window. You could also try a windshield cover to help keep the inside temperature lower when parked,” Day says.
Some parents also suggest keeping a spray bottle of water in the car to cool down parts of the car seats. However, Day says there’s an even easier solution than that. She suggests covering the seat with a light blanket or towel to keep the hot sun off of it.
“In warm weather, the inside of a vehicle essentially becomes a greenhouse. It only takes about 10 minutes for a car’s temperature to rise 19 degrees. Even on a comfortable 70 degree day, the inside of a vehicle can be upwards of 104 degrees. On a hot day, the interior temperature of a vehicle can be as high as 130 degrees or higher within 30 minutes,” Day says.
One reason the heat is extremely dangerous to children is their inability to cool themselves down. Children have a smaller body size, higher metabolism and are unable to cool through sweating as efficiently as an adult. Young children’s bodies heat up about three to five times faster than an adults’ body. There is no air movement inside a hot car, even with a window cracked, and no way for the child’s body to cool itself.
If You Notice a Child in a Hot Car
If you see a child in a hot car alone, call 911 immediately. EMS personnel are trained to assess the situation and will help guide you on what to do.
“If it appears a child is in extreme distress, you can try to gain access to the vehicle by first checking for an unlocked door or cracked window. Vehicle windows are very difficult to break and may require the assistance of EMS personnel. So again, the first thing you should do is call 911. Even if you’re ultimately able to get the child out of the car on your own, you will want the assistance of EMS as soon as possible to check on that child’s health. The sooner you call, the sooner they will arrive. If you do break into a vehicle to save the life of a child or pet, you will not face any criminal charges,” Day says.
If you have any questions about how to keep your child safe during hot, summer days, contact your UnityPoint Health Pediatrician or primary care provider.