This article originally appeared in the July 21, 2011, edition of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
As temperatures soar each year, the number of tragic and preventable deaths of children left in cars rises as well.
Last year, at least 49 children died because they were left in a car and experienced heat stroke. Already this year, more than 20 children across the country have died after being left in a car, according to the Department of Geosciences at San Francisco State University, which tracks these cases.
Heat stroke happens when the body temperature rises above 104 degrees. This can happen to a child left in a car even on days when the temperature is not excessively high. A car heats up quickly, often exceeding the outdoor temperature by 40 degrees in a short amount of time.
To compound the danger, a child’s body is not as efficient at regulating its temperature as the body of an adult. This means that a child can become dangerously warm much quicker than an adult.
In 253 cases of child heat stroke in cars from 1998 to 2010, caregivers reported that they forgot the child was in the car and accidentally left the child there, according to SFSU statistics. This accounts for more than 50 percent of these incidents.
The idea of forgetting a child in a car seems impossible, like it couldn’t possibly happen to any parent who cares about their child. Unfortunately, multi-tasking can keep our brains from focusing. Placing a car seat in the back seat, while safer during a collision, can also create an unfortunate “out-of-sight, out-of-mind” scenario.
Parents can come up with systems to remind them when they have the child, says Dr. John Peter, an emergency room doctor at Cardinal Glennon.
“Some parents will keep a stuffed animal in the car seat when they don’t have the child and put the stuffed animal in the front seat when they do have the child in the back,” Peter says. “The stuffed animal serves as a visual reminder to them that the child is in the back seat. I’ve also seen parents who put reminders on their phones to make sure their child was dropped off at day care.”
These techniques can make a tremendous difference. It is important for parents to acknowledge that it could happen to them, however horrific and remote that possibility may seem.
“It seems obvious that one would take the child out of the car, but it’s important to be aware that problems occur,” Peter says.
The second most common cause of heat stroke deaths in cars was children playing in unattended cars, according to SFSU statistics. In many of these cases, children get into the car and cannot get themselves out.
Parents should keep keys in a safe place and teach children that cars are not toys. Constant supervision of children who are playing outside, particularly on extremely hot days, is very important for safety.
The third leading cause of heat stroke deaths in cars is children who are intentionally left in a car, SFSU has found. Many parents may believe they have a quick errand and that they will be back in time to prevent any problems, but parents should never leave a child alone in a car under any circumstances.
“There are no quick fixes for this,” Peter says. “Parents can say ‘I’ll just be in the store for a few minutes’ or ‘I’ll turn the air conditioner up’ or ‘I’ll leave the windows open.’ Just don’t do it.”
Parents must be diligent about protecting their child from these tragic and preventable situations, but the public has a responsibility as well. If you see a child alone in a car, call 911—particularly on a very hot day.
“Children die every year from this,” Dr. Peter says. “Some don’t die but suffer serious health consequences. And that’s just the children. The emotional impact on the families having lost a child is devastating.”
Dr. Bob Wilmott is Chief of Pediatrics at SSM Cardinal Glennon Children’s Medical Center and is a Professor of Pediatric Medicine at Saint Louis University School of Medicine. If you have a question about your child’s health, go to the “Ask Dr. Bob” section of the Cardinal Glennon website at www.cardinalglennon.com.