It’s a startling statistic that far too many parents both forget and fear: More than 50 percent of child heat-stroke deaths occur when a kid is forgotten or left alone in a hot car. The hard truth is that this devastating mistake with dire consequences can happen to even the most conscientious parent — and it usually happens quickly. As Renee McCabe, injury prevention coordinator and safe-kids program manager at the Children’s Hospital of Georgia, explains, a car can heat up as much as 19 degrees in 10 minutes. Also, a youngster’s body can warm up three to five times faster than an adult’s, and once it reaches 104 degrees, organs begin to shut down.
While all caregivers and parents should challenge themselves to have a detailed-approach to prevention, McCabe says those who have children under the age of 1 are at the highest risk, since they’re juggling many responsibilities on little sleep. “Parents should make safety a priority because even one mistake, even 30 minutes, could be fatal to an unattended child,” she says.
Even though most moms and dads believe it could never happen to them, Sarah Ludwig, the co-coalition coordinator of Safe Kids Westchester-Rockland (N.Y.) and child passenger safety technician and instructor, says there’s a large body of evidence that it is entirely possible, even to the most loving and careful of parents. “This is a phenomenon that does not discriminate based on race or intelligence or socio-economic status — it is important to realize that it can happen to you, so you have systems in place to prevent it,” she says.
Here, safety experts provide their most effective steps that you should implement.
Keep a teddy bear in the passenger seat.
Though safety guidelines suggest keeping small children in rear-facing car seats, this can contribute to parents leaving their kids in cars, since they are somewhat out of sight and sound. “If your child falls asleep, you won’t get an audible reminder to check before getting out of your car. It also means you probably won’t see your child either,” McCabe says. She suggests keeping a teddy bear in the passenger seat of your car — directly next to you — that will remind you to look for your little one when it’s time to go inside.
Always lock your car and keep all keys out of the reach of your kids.
Repeat after every safety expert, ever: Lock your car and hide your keys. In case you missed that: Seriously — no matter if it is parked in the front driveway or the garage — make sure no little hands can play pretend and jump inside. Once your children are old enough to roam around, they tend to get into anything and everything, and there is nothing scarier than the risk of them locking themselves inside your SUV without your knowledge. “Especially now with key fobs, pressing the unlock-lock button is easy for a toddler. Keys should be kept in a basket high up on a shelf out of reach from children,” safety expert Alison Jacobson recommends. “Place a sign on your garage door as a reminder to always check the doors are locked before coming inside.”
When you’re in a deep bout of anxiety, pushed to your maximum in a fitness class or trying to keep your cool when someone angers you at the office, what do you do? If you have mastered coping skills, you likely take a big ol’ deep breath in and pause. This micro-minute can make a huge difference in car-seat rituals too, according to John Gobbels, the COO of Medjet and former law enforcement officer, firefighter and critical care nurse. “Teach yourself to stop, take a minute and check your car when it’s hot and you’re responsible for children. Make it a habit by doing it over and over again now, so that by time warm weather rolls around, this behavior is on autopilot,” he suggests.
Pay attention to your sleeping habits.
You obsess over every detail of your child’s actions. From how much they eat to how they are tracking on all of their growth milestones, moms and dads want to raise healthy, vibrant kids. Often, though, this means sacrificing their own vitality to put their children first. It’s understandable, but board-certified medical doctor and medical director at CityMD Janette Nesheiwat urges parents to monitor their own sleep too. “When you are fatigued, you are more likely to be forgetful — especially during busy times, during stressful times, during travel or holidays, or if you are distracted. This can cause you to forget about your child,” she says. If you are running on very little z’s, it’s worth reaching out to a friend, your own parent or someone you trust to help you, since your mental stamina can’t be trusted.
Place something valuable in the back seat.
There’s no doubt the most precious thing in your life is your baby. You would walk to the ends of the earth to ensure your chid is happy and healthy. But when you’re rushed or you’re not thinking clearly, you might unintentionally walk away. Other than your baby, consider items you never leave home without: your purse, your wallet, your smartphone and so on. Instead of having these next to you, place them in the seat beside your kid. “The most common cause of infant heat-stroke death is being forgotten in a hot car. That means it’s important for parents to have a reason to check the back seat,” McCabe continues. “If there’s something you know you absolutely have to have for work — your cellphone, your briefcase — keep it in the back seat with your child as a reminder.”
Have a routine in place for morning drop-offs.
By nature, humans thrive in routine. Whether it’s in an effort to lose weight, clean up a diet, improve friendships or do all of the above, structure is usually the biggest contributor to success. That’s why Ludwig suggests creating a schedule that keeps you — and your partner —accountable to car safety. “I know one family that takes a photo of their baby every morning at daycare drop-off and sends it to the other parent. If a photo were to be missed one morning, the other parent would be alerted that the child may not be where he needs to be,” she shares. “Some daycare providers automatically call families if the child has not been dropped off as expected; that could be an early alert of a potential problem.”
Explore new vehicle and car-seat options.
If you have the budget or you’re particularly worried, it’s worth investing in the peace of mind — and the reassurance — by upgrading your gear … or even your wheels. Ludwig explains that in an effort to minimize risk, some vehicle and restrain manufactures have taken proactive and preventive steps. To name a few: Some Evenflo models have SensorSafe technology that sounds an alarm if the seat is unbuckled while you are driving or if a child remains after you have parked, and it connects to an app on your phone, she says. “The GMC Acadia is equipped with Rear Seat Reminder, which alerts drivers that there may be something in the rear seat based on whether rear doors were open and closed prior to driving,” she adds.
Set a reminder on your phone.
Quickly, do an audit of all the reminders you set on your handy-dandy phone day-in and day-out. From the slow cooker that’s making dinner for tonight to the note that nudges you to pick up toilet paper, human memory isn’t foolproof, and sometimes, we need a ding here or there to keep us on track. That’s why McCabe says there’s no shame in doing the same when you’re driving in the thick of summer with your baby. “If you know you’re heading somewhere with your child in the back seat, set a reminder or a timer to go off in a couple of minutes. Your child will thank you for it,” she says.
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