Is it OK to leave my child alone in the car for just a few minutes?


June 2020

By: Sarah Knutson, FNP-BC
Nurse Practitioner, Family Medicine, Turtle Lake Clinic and Amery Hospital & Clinic

Summer officially begins later this month. But, the warm weather we’ve had lately makes me feel it’s already here.

One of my favorite things to do in the summer is gardening. A couple weekends ago, the temperature outside was 72 degrees. The perfect weather and time for me to garden. Within half an hour of being outdoors, I was sweating and thirsty, despite the cool breeze and overcast sky. I needed to make a quick trip to the greenhouse, so I grabbed my personal protective mask and jumped into my sweltering car that was parked in the shade. As quickly as possible, I turned on the air conditioning. The temperature in my car read 96 degrees!

As a family medicine clinician, I provide care for families including children and adolescents of all ages. I'm also the aunt of five beautiful children ages 21 months to 7 years old. One of our favorite games to play is hide and seek. Many times the older children will assist the younger ones in finding the perfect hiding spot. This can easily keep the children entertained for hours.

Now, I know you're wondering what these two stories have in common. As I was driving to the greenhouse the other weekend, I realized I missed a great opportunity to educate the kids about vehicle safety the last time we played hide and seek.

Many times when we think of the dangers of cars, we think about the thousands of car crashes – fatal or not – that happen across the United States each day. Or perhaps we might think about the perils of drinking and driving.

But one sad reality we may forget is that, every 10 days, a child dies from being left in a hot car. Heat stroke is the leading cause of non-crash, vehicle-related deaths in children under 15 years of age. This works out to be about 37 deaths per year – all of which could be avoided.

Isn’t this a result of poor parenting?

Some of these cases are results of neglect. But many of these deaths are purely accidental. Whether kids lock themselves in a vehicle or parents don’t realize they’ve left their child in the back seat, these fatal accidents do happen.

Parents don’t mean to leave their kids in the car. Fatigue in particular can cause us to go into auto-pilot and it can happen to anyone. Adjusting to a new routine is another common factor that leads to these accidents.

How hot can cars get?

Accidents also sometimes occur because parents don’t realize just how hot a parked car can get – no matter what season it is. Children can die of heat exposure in a car even when the outside temperature is as low as 60 degrees. The temperature inside a vehicle can rise up to 20 degrees within ten minutes and the body temperature of a child can rise faster than an adult. So even if kids are left in a car for a short time, they’re at risk of developing a serious heat-related illness. For example, remember a car is like a greenhouse. The temperature inside can be as much as 50 degrees warmer than the temperature outside.

How can you keep your kids safe from hot cars?

The first step is to never leave your child alone in a car, even for a moment.

The second step is to be sure to take kids out of the car once you reach your destination. It’s helpful to set an obvious reminder to do so, like:
  • Leave an important item in the back seat of your car. This could be a briefcase or phone, for example. Because you need the item, you’ll be more likely to check your backseat before leaving the vehicle.
  • Make a stuffed animal one of your regular passengers. When your child is not in the car, keep the stuffed animal in their empty car seat. Then, when your child is riding along, move that same stuffed animal to your front passenger seat. It will serve as a reminder to check the back seat before leaving the car.
  • Set up calendar reminders. Some parents accidentally go to work and forget that they have kids or babies in the car. To prevent this, set an alert on your phone that reminds you to stop at daycare first.
  • Avoid distractions. While driving and when exiting your vehicle, avoid using your cell phone.
  • Be vigilant when changes in routine occur. When someone else is driving your child, check to make sure your child arrived safely to their destination.
Lastly, in order to help keep your own children and other kids safe around hot cars, be sure to:
  • Keep your car locked at all times. This will protect kids from getting in by accident or when they are playing. Also, make sure keys are out of their reach. Teach children that inside cars, including the trunk, are not safe places to play or hide.
  • Use extra caution with rear-facing car seats. They look the same from the driver’s seat, whether a child is in them or not.
  • Remember temperatures inside a vehicle rise quickly. Once the vehicle is off, the air conditioning stops and the inside warms up. And, cracking a window does not help. Because the temperature inside a vehicle can rise quickly, leaving a child inside unattended, even if running a brief errand, is not safe.
  • Try using drive-thru’s at restaurants or other locations. This way, you don’t have to leave the car.
  • Call 911 if you see a child alone in a car.

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