Child Safety Tips: Preventing Forgotten Baby Syndrome

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Child Safety Tips: Preventing Forgotten Baby Syndrome

Child Safety Tips: Preventing Forgotten Baby Syndrome


Every time we hear the story, we are shocked all over again: somehow a parent has forgotten a baby or young child in a car on a hot day, and the child has died of hyperthermia. Each year in the US, approximately 40 children die due to “Forgotten Baby Syndrome.” Although statistics aren’t readily available for Canada, it happens much too often here, too. In 2013, the grandmother of toddler Maximus Huyskens of Milton, Ontario was convicted of failing to provide the necessities of life after she accidentally forgot the boy in the backseat of her car on a day when temperatures reached 36 degrees Celsius. In 2018, a Montreal man made a similar fatal mistake when he forgot to drop his six-month-old baby at daycare in the morning, only discovering what he’d done when he went to pick him up at the end of the working day. A month before that, a Burlington man was charged with the death of his three-year-old after leaving him in a hot vehicle for four hours, and in 2019, a sixteen-month-old baby in Burnaby, BC, died after having been left inside the family car for several hours. It seems unthinkable, and yet it happens over and over again.


With the advent of warmer weather, it’s worth considering why these tragedies occur and taking steps to protect your own children.


Why It Happens


Most of us don’t realize how quickly the interior of a parked car can heat up. A study funded by General Motors of Canada found that the air temperature in a small car exceeded 50 degrees Celsius (or 122 degrees Fahrenheit) after only twenty minutes parked in the sun on a hot day. After forty minutes, the temperature of the car’s interior was more than 65 degrees Celsius, or 150 degrees Fahrenheit. Another surprising piece of information is that the interior of a car can get dangerously hot even when the temperature outside is relatively low. An outdoor thermometer reading of only 15 degrees Celsius (59°F) is warm enough to create dangerous conditions for a child left in a car. Because of climate change, many jurisdictions are seeing an increase in the number of hot days; in future we can expect more hot days, and temperatures hotter than normal.

Children are particularly vulnerable to heat stroke, since a child’s body heats up three to five times faster than an adult’s does; in fact, heat stroke is the leading cause of non-crash, vehicle-related deaths in children under fifteen. A child left in a hot car will go into shock and experience the beginning of organ failure once his or her temperature reaches 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit). If the child’s temperature reaches 42 degrees Celsius (107 degrees Fahrenheit,) death may occur.


But why do caregivers accidentally leave children in cars? David Diamond, a leading expert in cognitive neuroscience from the University of South Florida in Tampa, has identified factors that commonly contribute to these incidents: change in routine, stress, and sleep deprivation. In many cases, on the day the child died, there had been a change in routine for the family -- for example, the parent who was tasked with dropping the child at daycare did not usually have that responsibility. Diamond believes the problem involves two parts of working memory: prospective and habit. Prospective memory should have alerted these caregivers to make changes to their routines, but unfortunately, “habit” brain overrode prospective memory, with tragic consequences.


In other words, because the parent’s usual pattern was to drive directly to work, they drove to the office on “autopilot,” without remembering that the baby was sleeping in the backseat. Because the child didn’t cry and the parent didn’t pick up a clue (such as noticing the presence of a diaper bag,) they didn’t realize that they had not dropped the child as they had intended to do. Diamond says that sleep deprivation and stress – both common to parents of young children -- increase the potential for this kind of working-memory failure.


Preventing Tragedy


Here are a few tips that can help to prevent you from experiencing Forgotten Baby Syndrome:


  • Make it a rule never, ever to leave your children alone in a vehicle for any reason.

  • Keep your vehicle locked at all times, and keep your car keys and garage door openers in a place where children can’t access them. 18% of children who succumb to heatstroke crawl into parked cars by themselves.

  • Place your cell phone, purse, briefcase, or wallet next to the baby’s car seat whenever you put the baby in the car, to prompt you to look in the backseat. Alternatively, place a stuffed animal in the front seat every time the baby is riding in the back.


  • Devise a system that can alert you if something is wrong; ask your daycare provider to call you if your child does not show up when expected, for example.


  • Purchase a car that includes an alarm system that alerts you to the presence of a baby in the car seat.


Put safeguards in place for your children, and keep them safe.