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Hot car deaths and how parents can keep their child safe from the summer heat

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A vehicle can heat up quickly even when it is not extremely hot outside, rising 20 degrees within 10 minutes. According to kidsandcars.org, there are on average 38 child hot car deaths per year in the United States.

Carlie Stein Somerville, M.D., assistant professor in the University of Alabama at Birmingham departments of General Internal Medicine and Pediatrics, shares advice and tips for parents and caregivers to prevent the accidental heatstroke deaths of children in hot vehicles.

“As a mother and a pediatrician, I understand that parents and caregivers have a lot on their minds, and distractions are always there,” Stein Somerville said. “Setting reminders and practicing car safety can prevent harm and even death to our children during the hot summer months.”

Set reminders

Children should never be left in an unattended vehicle. Stein Somerville says it takes only a few minutes for a child to overheat, suffocate and die in a car. Compared to adults, a child’s body heats up three to five times faster. When left in a hot car, a child’s major organs begin to shut down when their temperature reaches 104 degrees Fahrenheit, according to healthychildren.org.

Often, these deaths are accidental because parents or guardians forgot their child was in the car due to stressors and distractions. Numerous circumstances can cause parents to forget children are in the car, including:

  • A change in daily routine can make it challenging to remember your child is in the backseat, especially for first-time parents or when it is not that parent’s normal routine to take the child to day care on that day.
  • Sleep deprivation, which reduces concentration and slows thinking.
  • Rushing to an appointment causes stress because the mind is overloading itself with multiple tasks at once.

To help parents remember their child is in the backseat, Stein Somerville recommends placing an object, such as your left shoe, purse/bag or cellphone, in the back seat with your child when you leave the house. Placing the child’s toy in the front seat can also serve as a reminder. She also recommends that any parent, family member or guardian transporting a child do the same, as this can happen to even the most loving caregiver and helps ensure they do not forget the child is there.

Lock the Doors

Children love to play, especially hide-and-seek because their small bodies can hide away in narrow areas. However, the same hiding spot can be boring, and they often look for new places, including in a hot, unlocked car. The new spot can quickly become dangerous if the child becomes stuck or is unable to reopen the car door. Stein Somerville advises parents to lock their cars and teach children that cars are not safe places to play.

Stay Hydrated

Driving with the air conditioning on is nice, almost a luxury. The hot air quickly cools down while the sweat evaporates; but what happens when the air conditioning no longer works, and a child becomes hot?

According to Stein Somerville, cracked or rolled-down windows do not prevent cars from getting too hot. She recommends parents carry bottles of water to keep children hydrated. However, do not leave water bottles in the car when you get out, because the water will heat up quickly in the sun. Only give children water you know is still cool to reduce the risk of burning their mouths.

Staying hydrated helps regulate body temperature and circulate oxygen throughout the body. Along with staying hydrated, parents should park their cars in shaded areas, bring a cooling towel or buy a cooling seat cover if they can — but none of these measures will prevent a child from dying if they are left in the car.

Read more about keeping children hydrated during the summer months here.