Myths Debunked: Tips for Parents to Help Prevent Vehicular Heatstroke
Every summer tragedy inevitably strikes. Children are unknowingly left in hot cars. From 1998 to 2021, 906 children lost their lives to vehicular heatstroke (hyperthermia). More than half of those children (53%) were forgotten by a caregiver. In other cases, children gained access to a vehicle without their parents’ knowledge (a reminder to keep your keys out of reach and your car locked at all times).
Forgetting a child in the car can happen to anyone. It was my single biggest fear upon returning to work from maternity leave after my first child was born nine years ago – in the middle of the summer. I have been educating on this topic for many years – and unfortunately, have heard many inaccurate statements related to these terrible tragedies. Below, I have highlighted some of the most common myths:
1. It can only happen on a hot day.
The outside temperature is not the only factor at play in these tragedies. The sunlight coming in through the windows quickly warms up the hard surfaces in the vehicle, which in turn heat up the surrounding air. Research published in Pediatrics, studied the temperature rise in vehicles over a three-month period with a wide range of ambient air temperatures. The authors found that even on relatively cool days, the temperature rise in vehicles is significant on clear, sunny days and could put children at risk for heatstroke. A child's body can overheat three to five times faster than yours, making them highly susceptible to the condition. 
Related Article: Traveling With Baby: 6 Items You Shouldn’t Leave Home Without
2. It only happens in the south.
While these incidents may be more frequent in warmer climates, like Florida, Georgia, Texas or Arizona, the northern states are not immune to tragedy. States as far north as Connecticut, New York, Michigan, Oregon, Washington, Wisconsin and Minnesota have all experienced similar tragedies.
3. I will only be in the store for a minute.
You may think you will only be in the store for a minute, but then an item is out of stock, the line at the register is long, there is a credit card reading error, etc. – any number of things could delay your return to your vehicle. The authors of the study in Pediatrics also note that the majority of the temperature rise in the vehicle occurs in the first 15 to 30 minutes. A child should never be left alone in the car.
4. It will never happen to me.
This is likely the most common myth – and unfortunately, the most dangerous. Nine years ago, I returned to work in June after the birth of my daughter in March. Our family had to develop a new schedule. I would handle drop off at child care every morning, as I was fortunate to work for a hospital system that had child care on campus. However, my job often had unpredictable hours and travel – so there were random days when my husband would be dropping off at school. I was terrified of those days.
The problem is, your memory does not prioritize by importance. According to David Diamond, Ph.D., professor of molecular physiology at the University of South Florida, “our conscious mind prioritizes things by importance, but on a cellular level, our memory does not. If you’re capable of forgetting your cellphone, you are potentially capable of forgetting your child.”
I had no doubt that my husband loved our daughter as much as I did. But dropping her off at school was not on his way to work. For three years he would leave our house and drive directly to his work on the other side of town. I know how easy it would be for his brain to go on autopilot and follow his regular route to work. So, I made a plan. I set an appointment reminder on my phone in advance (knowing that my own day would likely be filled with distractions). Each morning he dropped off, I would call about a half hour after drop off to ask about how it went, if the teachers had anything new to share, if she cried, ate, etc. It took less than two minutes and would set my mind at ease for the rest of the day.
Fast-forward two years and we bought a new house on the other side of town. The first time I went downtown after moving into the new house, something odd happened. On the way home I found myself driving back to our old house. I was two exits down on the wrong interstate before I realized what I had done. My brain was so used to driving the same way when leaving downtown – that I completely bypassed my new exit. My husband got a good laugh out of it. However, the same thing happened the next two times I was driving downtown. I was quickly reminded of how hard it can be to break a routine.
So I urge you, do not assume this could never happen to you. Take a few minutes to think of an effective reminder system for your own family. Spend some time educating yourself on this topic – and share what you learn with friends and family.
Further recommended reading: