The other day I was in a waiting room and picked up a magazine. I flipped through it as I waited for my appointment, and happened to read this article. It made me feel a bit sick to my stomach, and has been on my mind ever since, and I knew I needed to write something about this. The article is about children left in hot cars who die because they overheat. It's horrific just to think about poor infants and toddlers strapped into carseats, hardly able to move let alone escape, and trapped alone as they are baked to death. In looking for a link to the original article, I found Fatal Distraction in the Washington Post. It is a much longer article than the other, and even more likely to make you feel sick (it has multiple stories, and excerpts from medical examiners about what exactly happens to the children). With that said, it's still probably worth reading.
As this page shows, in some cases (18%) the adult intentionally left the child, probably for a brief errand, but cars can get very hot very fast (20 degrees in 10 minutes). In about 30% of cases the child was playing in an unattended vehicle. In over 50% of cases however, it was a matter of the caregiver forgetting that the child was in the car at all, and leaving them for hours. (Sick as it is, Alaska actually has a law allowing people to bring minor children into bars, because too many children had been left in vehicles and frozen to death while the parent went in for a drink...) The vast majority of children who died were two or younger--so most of them were strapped into rear-facing carseats where the driver could not see them from the front seat. As laws have increased vehicle safety on one front, they are increasing danger on another, and we as parents must be vigilant.
We all want to think that we are the parents who would never forget that our kid was in the car, but in fact over the last decade an average of 37 children have died this way each year in the USA, and their parents are not neglectful, merely forgetful. The same way one might forget to pick up milk on the way home, or forget to recharge the cell phone, so one can forget that a child is in the car...at least, that is what the articles say. Our brains are not as fancy as we think, and forgetting is forgetting.
As the content of the article swirled around and around in my head, something leaped out at me. We all think this will never happen to us...but I think that for some of us it really never would. At the very least, the chances are very very much reduced. Why do I think I can say that of myself? Simple: I'm not in the habit of being anywhere without my kids.
Most of the parents who left their child in the car had forgotten to drop off the child at daycare or a babysitter--the child had fallen asleep or something like that, and the parent simply went to work as usual and didn't realize the mistake until hours later. They were not accustomed to having their child as a constant part of their daily routine, so the absence of the child was not noticed.
For me, the default is to have my kids with me. Even when I do leave them with a sitter I find that my mind is often on my children rather than on where I am or what I'm doing. Am I obsessive? Perhaps, but more than that, I am living in the present. My children will only be young for a short time, and so for this time, I am with them--really with them--because I will have plenty of life without them, so I don't want to lose these precious years. Does it get tiring? Oh sure, some days bedtime just can't come fast enough...but while the days may be long, the years are short, and I'm just not willing to leave my children regularly while I go do...what?
I'm not trying to sound holier-than-they, but this topic has definitely led me to think that this is yet another good reason for mothers to be home with their children. I'm sure it's possible for a stay-at-home-parent to forget a child in the car...possible...but of the dozen stories told in the articles, every single one involved a working parent getting distracted by the routine or business of the day, and forgetting that the child was in the car. Every.Single.One. If your child is not part of your normal routine, then you probably won't notice if he's missing.
It's food for thought anyway.
In the meantime, the articles had several good suggestions for protecting your children against your own mental lapses:
- Put the younger (or quieter) child on the passenger's side (not right behind the driver) so that the driver will be more likely to see the child in the rearview mirror.
- Always put your purse or diaper bag in the back, next to the carseat, so that you have to go back there to get it when you arrive at your destination. (I do this, though I never thought of it as protective of my child, I will certainly continue to do it)
- Consider keeping a teddy bear or other toy in the carseat--when you put the child in, move the toy to the front seat (where you can see it).
- Never assume that someone else has gotten the baby--check for yourself that the carseat is empty.
- Always check the carseat when you get out of the car, even if you *know* there's nobody in it. Just make a habit to always check anyway.