Share this with your friends
Trigger warning: This article discusses child death (via hyperthermia).
After a long, hard winter, spring is finally here. With the rising temperatures, however, an insidious risk also creeps back into the lives of those who care for small children.
Every summer, the horror stories trickle in from across the country: tales of silent or sleeping children forgotten in rear-facing car seats by loved ones. These stories, if they make it to the media, do not have happy endings. They are stories of parents who, though some terrible freak accident, have inadvertently killed their child in a truly terrible way.
Last summer, a mom in Alabama left her 11-month-old in her car seat for four hours, midday in July. Inside the car, temperatures were at over 120 degrees Fahrenheit. There is only one end to that story, and the word tragic doesn’t do it justice. The mother has since given an interview talking about how she wishes she had died in that car, not her beloved daughter.
The most terrifying thing about car seat hyperthermia is that it could happen to anyone with a child small enough to be in a car seat. The real issue is that no one wants to admit that it could happen to them. We all want to believe we’re better parents than that. So whenever this happens, people immediately rush to condemn the adult involved, who is no doubt already going through the worst time of their life.
There’s a reason the 2008 Wall Street Journal piece about car seat deaths was a Pulitzer prize winning article: the content was terrifying, well-researched, and moving. What was terrifying was how well it was established that good parents and intelligent people were capable of forgetting their child in a car seat.
I read it for the first time when I wasn’t even a month post-partum yet. I cried through the whole thing, barely able to see the screen. The term “skin-slippage” made a particular impact; the phrase is used to discuss what happens to the body of the child locked in the car seat. After reading it, I hysterically pleaded with my husband to do the same. Once he had, we made a pact: regardless of who is driving or who has our son, we will always check the car seat when we get out, even if we know he isn’t back there. Especially when we think he isn’t back there.
It all has to do with the way the brain works when people drive. You know how sometimes you pull into your driveway and you can’t quite remember the drive, although you know you were awake and paying attention? That’s because a part of your brain that takes over when you go into auto-pilot isn’t so great with details and short-term memory storage.
Speaking of a recipe for disaster, many car seat hyperthermia deaths have certain things in common. A lot of these tragic death occur on Mondays or Fridays and during periods of high stress, such as when a regular routine changes or when someone else close to the family is dying or sick. Despite the cruel words so common in response to these accidents, forgetting the child does not make the parent a bad parent, just one whose brain let them down in the most tragic of ways.
While there is technology that could prevent parents from forgetting a child in a car, devices to alert parents about a child left in a car seat are not standard in any vehicle or readily-available car seat. While some of the newest devices show promise, the government has previously warned that the devices on the market are unreliable.
There are a few simple tricks to remind yourself to always check the car seat. Put your purse, briefcase, or wallet in the back seat next to the car seat, whether or not the child is with you. That way you have to physically open the back door and look in the back seat before leaving your vehicle. You can also try putting up a sign or note, or hanging a pacifier or necklace around the rear view mirror to remind you to check, but this will probably be less effective. It’s also a good rule of thumb to require child-care providers to contact you within a half-hour if the child is late being dropped off, just in case.
A parent who loses a child, especially in a tragic accident, deserves compassion and understanding. Outliving your child is a living nightmare I can’t begin to comprehend, and one I desperately hope to never experience. We need to remember to react with compassion when we hear of stories like these, to remember they could happen to anyone. And then we need to take the steps necessary in our personal lives to prevent similar things from happening to us.
While it would be wonderful if people were supportive and compassionate after someone loses a child, all too often, it is easier for strangers to cast stones and lay blame as a way to ensure themselves it can’t happen to them.
Parents, guardians, and loved ones of children young or small enough to sit in rear-facing car seats: check that back seat every time. Every day. No matter what, especially if the child isn’t with you. That half-second check may save you an entire lifetime of self-hatred and regret.