Summer’s heat presents special risks to children traveling in the back seat: Roughly 800 children died from heatstroke after accidentally being locked in hot cars between 1990 and 2015, according to the nonprofit safety group Kids and Cars.
These tragedies are preventable, says Dawne Gardner, an injury prevention specialist at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital’s Comprehensive Children’s Injury Center. “Normally kids—and pets, too—can’t escape if they’re locked in a car,” Gardner says. “They depend on adults to protect them.” Here’s how to update your safety plans for the season:
Keep your car locked, windows up
More than a quarter of kids who died of heatstroke in cars got in the vehicle by themselves, according to Kids and Cars. Leaving the windows open to cool down a car’s interior is not worth the risk of a child crawling into it. “When the car is stationary, it should be locked,” Gardner says. Roll up windows, and lock the doors and trunk to prevent kids from climbing in without you noticing.
Guard your keys
Kids love to play with keys. (Hey, it’s fun to make the car beep by pushing a button!) But if you let your little ones treat keys like a toy, they could accidentally let themselves in while you’re, say, unloading groceries from the trunk. In just 10 minutes a car’s interior can heat up by more than 19 degrees. Buy a set of pretend keys for little ones instead, and hang the real deal out of reach.
Make it a hard-and-fast rule in your house that the car is a no-play zone, and give children some examples they can relate to—but also won’t find too scary. Try something like, “Do you see dogs driving cars? No! Do you see kids driving cars? No! That’s because only grown-ups drive cars. And you can only be in a car when an adult is with you.” Or, “Have you ever seen a car in a toy store? Can you imagine squeezing one between the dolls and games? That’s because cars aren’t toys, of course! We never play in cars.”
Plant a backseat reminder
You’re running errands, lost in thought, and your little one has dozed off in the back seat. As a reminder to always (always!) take your child with you—even if you have to wake them—leave something else vital, like your purse, phone or lunch, on the back seat. This routine will ensure that you won’t forget a sleeping child, even when you’re on autopilot. (Read 10 more tips on baby safety with this primer for new parents.)
Schedule backup support
Changes in routine—like switching up which parent drops off a child or returning to work after a vacation—can make you prone to forgetting your child in the car, Gardner says. Enlist the help of your child’s daycare provider and babysitters by asking them to call you when they notice your child has not arrived by a designated time. It can mean the difference between a child who’s forgotten for a few minutes versus one who is overlooked for several hours.
Leave the engine running, AC on
We’ve all been there: You get to your destination but your baby has fallen asleep in the back seat, and you don’t want to wake her. Don’t turn off the car and wait, because you can’t necessarily gauge when the car has become too hot. Children’s bodies heat up three to five times faster than adults’, so they could be in danger of fatal heatstroke when you’re just sweating. Even cracking a window doesn’t provide enough circulation. “Even if you can stand it, your kid can’t,” Gardner says. Either stay in the car with the AC on or bring her inside immediately.
Don’t wait—call 911
“If you see a child left alone in a car, you have to be proactive in making sure she gets out—now,” says Gardner. The fastest way to do that is to call 911. You may hesitate to call in the cavalry, but there’s no way of knowing how long a child has been left behind, or when the adult is coming back. Never assume you’ll be able to coach a child to unlock the car door either.
By Catherine Ryan Gregory
Next article: 11 Emergency Essentials to Keep in Your Car