Accidentally leaving children in cars: how it happens
Children can be accidentally left in cars when parents or carers forget that their child is in the back seat. This lapse in short-term memory can happen when parents and carers feel tired, stressed or anxious, get distracted, or have a change in routine.
Lapses in short-term memory are natural and can happen to anyone. It’s especially easy to forget things when you’re a parent or carer. That’s because you’re thinking about and doing so many things every day, sometimes all at once.
Forgetting that your child is in the back seat of your car is very dangerous. There are three key things you can do to help yourself remember your child and keep them safe:
- Make a safe routine.
- Reduce distractions.
- Look after yourself.
Leaving your child alone in the car, even for a moment, is very dangerous. Parked cars can get hot very quickly. If you have to leave your car for any reason, always take your child with you.
Safe routines: the first step to prevent accidentally leaving children in cars
A safe routine can reduce your risk of accidentally leaving your child in the car.
That’s because a safe routine gives you cues to remember or check that your child is in the car. And once the routine becomes a habit, you’ll start automatically checking for your child without relying on your short-term memory.
The key part of a safe routine is checking the back seat every time you leave the car.
There are also some other things you can build into your routine to help you remember that your child is in the car:
- Open the back door of the car every time you park, even if no-one’s in the back.
- Put your child’s bag or lunch box on the front seat where you can see it.
- Leave something on the back seat next to your child. Choose an item that you’ll need at the end of the car trip, like your phone, wallet or bag.
- Every time you leave the car, check off a list of things that should be with you, in your head or out loud. For example, ‘Baby, keys, wallet, phone’.
- Leave a reminder post-it note or sticker on your car window or near your door handle, where you’ll see it when you get out of the car. It could say something like ‘Look before you lock’ or ‘Check the back seat’.
You can also use devices that remind you that your child is in the car. For example:
- Back seat mirrors or video monitors – these help you see your child when you’re in the front.
- Car seat sensors – these monitor weight on your child’s car seat, movement in the back of the car and changes in car temperature. They sense and alert you if your child is left behind.
- Rear door alert systems – these detect whether you’ve opened the back door before or during your trip. They can remind you at the end of your trip to check the back seat.
- Devices to plug into your car’s power adapter – these can remind you to check the back seat when the engine is turned off.
It’s always best to use these devices together with a safe routine.
You can also ask your child’s carer or child care service to call you if your child hasn’t arrived – for example, if your carer has been waiting for 30 minutes.
The more strategies you put into place to prevent accidentally leaving your child in the car, the safer it is for your child.
Distractions can increase the risk of accidentally leaving your child because they overload your short-term memory.
You can reduce distractions when you’re in the car with your child by:
- allowing plenty of time for your trip so that you’re not rushing
- putting your phone on silent or on airplane mode
- using a GPS when travelling new routes so you have fewer things to think about
- turning off the radio.
Sometimes children are accidentally left in cars because of distractions that you can’t control or because there’s been a change in routine. For example, you’re used to driving straight to work but you need to drop your child off at day care one morning.
This is why it’s important to make a safe routine, so that checking the back seat for your child is part of every car trip.
Looking after yourself
It’s common for parents, especially new parents, to feel tired, stressed or anxious. This can affect your short-term memory and increase the risk of accidentally leaving your child in the car.
Looking after yourself is an important way of reducing this risk.
Getting enough sleep
It’s important to try to get enough sleep. If you can get more sleep, you’ll feel more rested and less stressed. If you have a baby or young child, getting more sleep might mean going to bed earlier, or making time for an afternoon nap on the weekends.
If you’re tired because your baby or toddler isn’t settling or sleeping well, you can get help from your child and family health nurse, GP or paediatrician. These health professionals can work with you to find a sleep and settling solution that’s right for your family.
If you’re feeling extremely tired, it’s best to avoid driving. If it’s something that can’t wait, you can ask someone else to drive or you can use public transport, a taxi or a rideshare service.
Some common signs of stress or anxiety are worrying most of the time, having trouble sleeping and feeling your heart racing.
Options for managing stress or anxiety include:
- doing breathing exercises or positive thinking exercises
- talking things over with friends or family
- making time to do things you enjoy.
If your child is unintentionally locked in a car or you see any child left unattended in a car, call for help or notify someone straight away. If the child looks hot or distressed, call 000 immediately. You should also call local roadside assistance for help.