One hot summer day, Brandi Koskie strapped her 2-week old daughter Paisley into her rear-facing car seat and drove off to run some errands. As her daughter slept peacefully, Koskie parked, got out of the car, locked the door and walked away.
Fortunately, she remembered within a minute that she had left her baby behind.
"I ran back, unbuckled her and held her. I was sobbing and shaking for probably 10 minutes afterwards," said Koskie, who is from Wichita, Kan. "I kept thinking about how the worst might have happened."
Most parents think they could never the mistake of leaving their baby in the car in sweltering heat. Yet according to the advocacy group Safe Kids Worldwide, Koskie was right to be upset. The outcome can be tragic.
In the first week of August alone, according to another group, Kids and Cars, eight children across the United States died from heatstroke in hot vehicles; nearly 40 children die this way each year.
Heatstroke, also known as hyperthermia, happens when the body's thermostat is overwhelmed with heat. Safe Kids USA says children are at the greatest risk because their bodies heat up 3 to 5 times more quickly than an adult's.
An innocent Oversight
What sort of parent could be so negligent? Although often portrayed as monsters in the media and sometimes even charged with manslaughter or child abuse, Jeff Brown, an assistant clinical professor in the department of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, says they are often otherwise loving and attentive parents who feel hassled, distracted and confused.
"It can happen so easily if someone is overwhelmed and hyper-focused on what they have to do. When you're trying to multitask and do too many things, the brain goes on overload. The responsibility of caring for your child just slips from your mind," he says.
One San Francisco University report that recorded 424 heat related deaths of children in 12 years found that slightly more than half occurred because the parent simply forgot the child was in the car.
Brown himself says he has been witness to this phenomenon. At a recent gathering at his son's school, a dad abruptly got up and left in the middle of the meeting: He suddenly remembered he had left his infant son in their parked car.
Jeanne Cosgrove, the Sunrise Children's Hospital coordinator for the Safe Kids Coalition in Las Vegas, adds that kids are also more likely to be left behind when there is a change in routine and the other parent has responsibility for the child. "They go about their normal day not realizing the baby is still in the back seat," she says.
Rear-facing car seats may also be a contributing factor in parent's forgetfulness. While experts agree that a rear-facing seat increases a child's safety during a collision, the website Parent Central says, "The last time experts pushed a new campaign to put more children in rear-facing seats ? in the 1990s, to cut the chances of being killed by air bags ? the number of children who died in hot cars spiked."
Brown says some tricks that can help spaced out parents: Leave your purse or briefcase in the back seat so you have to retrieve it before leaving the car, play children's music on the radio as a reminder that your bundle of joy is along for the ride, and set your phone alarm with reminders that it's your day to babysit.
It Only Takes a Few Minutes
In some cases, parents believe it's OK if they run a quick errand and hustle back to the car. They don't want the hassle of unbuckling a seat belt and wrestling with a squirming child. But they may not realize how quickly the inside of a car can become an oven. Cosgrove says a car can heat up at a rate of more than two degrees a minute. And opening the windows does little good because much of the heat radiates off seats and dashboards.
While being in a hurry is understandable, experts agree that it's no excuse for negligence. Brown says to think of the few moments it takes to get your child out of your car as worth it.
"Keep in mind how much regret you will feel if something happens while you're gone. You may feel like you're saving time but it only takes an instant for something to go wrong."
Richard Gallagher, an associate professor at the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, NYU Langone Medical Center, says he believes the solutions for time-strapped parents are obvious -- either leave your children at home or get them out of the car and bring them with you, even if you only plan on being gone for a few minutes.
"Take the time to take the kids with you. You can teach them about your responsibilities, what it takes to interact with people, and show them that they are important enough for you to be patient, he says.
As you're untangling straps and loading up strollers, Brown says it helps to keep things in perspective.
"It isn't a permanent situation and you won't be stuck doing this forever. Your kids will eventually grow up so in the meantime it's best to do everything you can to avoid an accident right now."