In keeping with my earlier post about safe driving and bad habits, I thought I would touch on another very tragic, but preventable, circumstance surrounding cars and children. It was the first very hot and humid day this summer when I heard of the death of a two year old after his grandmother left him in the car. She just forgot he was there and went about her day. While it might seem inconceivable that this could happen to any caring and well-intentioned adult, I read an article recently that helped me to understand how possible this is.
Several years ago a mother in Calgary was returning to her job as a University Professor after a one year maternity leave following the birth of her second child. She was a well-educated and diligent mother that did everything she could to protect the safety of her children during pregnancy, at home, and in the community. With her return to work the family had to adopt a new routine. She dropped her older child at day care and proceeded to take her daughter (11 months) to her new child care provider. The mother and daughter were singing and laughing in the car when the child fell asleep. The mother then spent the next several minutes putting together a very detailed mental plan of how she was going to get her child out of the car seat and into the day care without waking her. Once she visualized that process, and understood how it would all work, her mind rapidly switched to thoughts about her first week back at work and all the things she needed to accomplish. She arrived at work, went about her day, and realized when she came to her car to go home that her daughter was still in the car seat.
Her purpose of engaging in the interview and having the article published was to help people understand how this could happen and how it can be prevented. For her, she believes that the process of “visualizing” the drop off of her daughter made her mind believe that it actually happened. When her mind switched to thinking about work, it was convinced that her other responsibilities had been completed. This is the power of visualization, and of a distracted mind.
But I feel the most important aspect of the article were the strategies for prevention. The mother went on to have other children and talked openly about the steps she now takes to ensure she does not relive this tragedy. She explained that she always makes sure she puts something in the back seat with her children. Her purse, work bag, lunch. This requires her to enter the back seat of her car when getting out. Or, the opposite could also work – put a diaper bag, toy or child backpack in the front seat to cue you to their presence. This mother also said she has asked her child care providers to call her directly if her children are not dropped off on time, as expected. Lastly, when putting her children in their car seat she puts on a bracelet that is kept in the seat. She takes it off when getting them out. This serves as a visual cue, but has also become part of her new car seat routine that will reinforce a new behavior (put the bracelet back in the car seat when leaving the vehicle, making her access the seat).
According to WebMD “there is no safe amount of time to leave a child (or pet) in a car”. The temperature inside a car can rise or fall exponentially faster than the temperature outside, as your car functions as a greenhouse. Just get in your car on a hot day and try to breathe. Preventing child death from being left in a car is possible, and parents need to be wary of new routines, changes in schedules, and the cognitive process of remembering multiple things. And most of all, don’t be naïve enough to believe the self-fulfilling “this could never happen to me” phenomenon. Any oversight, regardless of how significant, can happen to us all.