For many parents, the idea of accidentally leaving their baby in a hot car feels unfathomable. They think, there is no way I would forget my baby in the car! But the reality is, nearly 25% of parents report that—at some time during a drive—they had completely forgotten that their under-3-year-old was in the car with them. And, at times, those memory lapses can lead to tragedy: Many child hot car deaths occur when a parent unknowingly leaves their little one in a car. So…why do loving, attentive parents forget their baby in the car? And what can we do to help prevent these grave mistakes? Here, what every parent needs to know about hot car deaths.

How common are accidental infant car deaths?

They are, sadly, more common than you would think. On average, in the US, 38 children under the age of 15 die of heatstroke each year after being left in a vehicle. In 2018 and 2019 a record number of 53 children died after being left in a hot vehicle.

Are accidental car deaths a summertime issue?

No! Accidental car deaths can occur even during pleasant spring or fall days. Consumer Reports testing found that when temps outside were a mild 16 degrees Celsius, the temperature inside a closed vehicle ballooned to more than 40.5 degrees Celsius within an hour, posing a big-time risk to small children forgotten inside. Car temps can reach dangerous levels no matter if you are parked in the shade or the sun. Research estimates that even in a shaded vehicle, a 2-year-old’s core temperature could reach a potentially deadly 40 degrees Celsius in less than two hours.

Why are children so vulnerable to accidental death in a hot car?

Babies and children are not simply mini adults! Their still-developing bodies do not react to heat the same ways ours do. In fact, a child’s body overheats faster than adults. And because young children, especially babies, cannot efficiently regulate their body temperature, they dehydrate way more quickly than adults, too. Even with windows cracked, the temperature inside a car can reach 52 degrees Celsius in just minutes. (Roughly 80% of the increase happens in the first 10 minutes!)

How is it possible for parents to forget their babies in the car?

While it seems unimaginable to forget that your child is in the car with you, there are many everyday occurrences that increase the likelihood that you may not remember your baby in the vehicle, such as:

  • Change of routine: Our habit memory is typically more powerful than our prospective memory, which is having a plan to use your memory to accomplish something in the future. So, if you normally do not drop your child at daycare, but you are supposed to today, you need your weaker prospective memory to take the lead.
  • Change in route: Research notes that there is often a change in the driving route on the day a child was accidentally left in the car. The route change coupled with a quiet, sleeping child, can trigger an autopilot response, where the driver accidentally bypasses the planned stops at daycare.
  • Lack of sleep: This is a risk factor for diminishing your prospective memory. Research has shown that many parents who accidentally left their children in the car report interrupted sleep on the night before the incident. (Learn more about what a lack of sleep does to a parent’s brain.)
  • Distractions: Many parents who accidentally left their child in the car say that they had a highly distracting or stressful experience prior to—or during—the drive. (Research shows that stress can have an adverse effect on prospective memory, which involves remembering to carry out or recall planned actions.)
  • Quiet child: Parents who have forgotten their child in the car often report that they usually interact with their kiddo throughout car rides…but on the day of the incident, their child either slept in the car seat or was unusually quiet. It is thought that this change in dynamics can put a parent’s brain on autopilot.
  • Rear-facing car seats: These car seats look the same to the driver whether a baby is strapped in or not. Plus, babies often quietly doze in rear-facing safety seats.

Are there other causes of accidental hot car death?

Yes. The second leading cause of hot car deaths are due to children getting into unattended vehicles. Again, the temperature inside a car can reach over 46 degrees Celsius quickly, even when the outside temperature is just 21 degrees Celsius. This is why it is important to always lock your car doors—and boot. (If your child is ever missing, check the car including the boot, asap.)

How to Avoid Accidental Hot Car Deaths

There are certain things you can do to help safeguard your family from ever going through the unimaginable tragedy of losing a child in a hot car. These include:

  • Leave a clue. Always place your nappy bag (or another baby item) in the front passenger seat as a visual reminder that your baby is in the car with you.
  • Post this. Secure a note to your dashboard that reads Park / Look / Lock to remind yourself to always look for your baby before exiting the vehicle.
  • Opt for backseat storage. Instead of tossing items that you need to start your day (like your laptop, phone, purse, or employee badge) in the boot of your car—or on the passenger seat—store them next to Baby’s car seat so that you will always look before you leave. Some even recommend always placing your left shoe in the backseat.
  • Have a caregiver plan. Ask your caregiver to call you if your child has not arrived at daycare as scheduled.
  • Check in. If someone besides you is driving your child anywhere, check in to make sure they arrived safely.
  • Keep vehicles locked. Whether in the garage or driveway, cars need to always remain locked. (And do not leave car keys within your toddler reach.)
  • Give a horn lesson. Teach your child to honk the car’s horn if they ever become stuck inside a vehicle.
  • Keep rear fold-down seats closed. This will help prevent a child from crawling into the boot from inside the car.
  • Get tech support. The BackSeat Safety app reminds the driver to check the backseat when parked, using GPS. And if you use Waze, a traffic app, you can enable a setting that will remind you to check the back seat once you reach the destination you entered into the app.
  • Consider other products. The Steelmate Baby Car Seat Reminder is a low-tech helper that will remind you that your little one is in the back—no app, Bluetooth, or Wi-Fi needed. Simply place the sensing pad under your child’s seat, clip a device to your seatbelt, then plug another bit into the car’s lighter. When you unbuckle your belt (or turn off the AC), the device in your lighter will flash and beep, reminding you there is a toddler in back. If you are in the market for a new vehicle, know that many cars now come equipped with technology to help prevent the driver from forgetting their baby in the vehicle. 

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Disclaimer: The information on our site is NOT medical advice for any specific person or condition. It is only meant as general information. If you have any medical questions and concerns about your child or yourself, please contact your health provider. Breastmilk is the best source of nutrition for babies. It is important that, in preparation for and during breastfeeding, mothers eat a healthy, balanced diet. Combined breast- and bottle-feeding in the first weeks of life may reduce the supply of a mother's breastmilk and reversing the decision not to breastfeed is difficult. If you do decide to use infant formula, you should follow instructions carefully.