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So far in 2009, 29 children have died after being left in a hot car. They died from hyperthermia. I am sure there are hundreds of little ones who did not die, but could have. I am sure there are thousands who have been left in the car for a moment. This is not okay. It does not take a long time for a car to heat up above 107 degrees. And that temperature is lethal for humans. More than 50% of these deaths were kids under 2 – many of whom were asleep. They did not make any noises when the car was parked. See this fact sheet for more information on hyperthermia deaths.
I think about this a lot when I worry about the biggest mistakes a parent or caregiver can make. Earlier this week I was reading the Mommy Has to Work blog and I was reminded that I wanted to express my thoughts on this topic and perhaps some ideas and resources to help us avoid this terrible tragedy. It took me a few days to put my thoughts together. The information out there is heartbreaking.
First, Some Background and Sensitivity Training…
The Washington Post called it “Fatal Distraction” in March 2009, when staff writer Gene Weingarten wrote about the difficulty in assessing the criminal nature of a child’s death by hyperthermia (or heatstroke) when the parent made a fatal mistake – he or she forgot their child or children in the car. (Please see also the transcript of Gene’s live discussion after the huge response his article received.) These are parents who deeply love their children. They will be haunted for the rest of their lives by their mistake. I am in tears again and I have read the article and many others so many times. Gene admits that he had a moment in his past where his daughter made a noise in a parking lot and he remembered she was there. He had forgotten. He was overcome with nausea. Thank God he did not get out of the car. Thank God she made a noise. He felt like he had to write this piece. Sometimes it just takes the smallest thing to bring us back from our modern day distracted reality.
I hear this a lot: “what kind of parent could do that?” I have read a number of articles over the last year that made me realize it could be any of us. Seriously. Our brains are not perfect. And the part of our brain that deals with memory and complex routines – the pre-frontal cortex – helps us to multitask and make finely tuned decisions but is also sensitive to stress and changes in a NORMAL routine. Read the article for a much better description. Basically, under stress the boobie part of your brain, the basal ganglia, takes over and you go on autopilot. Unless something jogs your good brain – you could forget anything – even your child. I will not spend a long time on specific stories of heartbroken parents but I will post the list of people Gene interviewed – the list of what kind of parent could do that. It is terrifying and very sobering. The following is taken from Gene’s article.
What kind of person forgets a baby?
The wealthy do, it turns out. And the poor, and the middle class. Parents of all ages and ethnicities do it. Mothers are just as likely to do it as fathers. It happens to the chronically absent-minded and to the fanatically organized, to the college-educated and to the marginally literate. In the last 10 years, it has happened to a dentist. A postal clerk. A social worker. A police officer. An accountant. A soldier. A paralegal. An electrician. A Protestant clergyman. A rabbinical student. A nurse. A construction worker. An assistant principal. It happened to a mental health counselor, a college professor and a pizza chef. It happened to a pediatrician. It happened to a rocket scientist….
The facts in each case differ a little, but always there is the terrible moment when the parent realizes what he or she has done, often through a phone call from a spouse or caregiver. This is followed by a frantic sprint to the car. What awaits there is the worst thing in the world.
See? They are not all drunk or on drugs. They are not “those” parents who you would never associate with. They are people, just like you and me, who never thought they would do that. Let’s keep any “better than you claws” in and focus on how to avoid this situation. Please.
How Can We Prevent These Tragedies? a.k.a. How to Jog Your Good Brain and Help Others
10 Ideas…not all mine but all good. And there can be NO overkill here. Overlap is great!
1. Set an Alert on your computer, phone or Blackberry: From my own vault of experience while working with a baby in daycare – I set an alert on my computer to go off every 15 minutes from about 7 a.m. (I got to work around 7.15 to 7.30) to 9 a.m. That way no matter when I got to work there was a message on my screen that said…
Did you drop Sophia off at daycare? Are you sure she is not in the car?
I put mine in Microsoft outlook. I am sure there are lots of online programs that can do it too. This really helped me. While I never really thought I had left her – I did call the daycare once or twice to make sure while running to my car. This frantic run may happen with this method – the note sometimes makes you second guess yourself. However, coupled with the other suggestions I think it is still a good idea.
2. Place a sticker on your car: Your windshield, your dashboard, your driver side window – wherever you think – that asks the same question. Where is your child? Or says Kids Should not be Left In Cars. Or maybe Don’t Forget Me! This is also a good reminder to count your kids before you leave. WAY too many kids get run over every year because parents thought they were in the car or in the house. You can get some stickers and magnets for your car from Forget Me Not. Or you could make your own. This is what I am doing – I will post what I come up with so you can see. You scrapbookers could make some dynamite stickers I am sure. Maybe they have your kids names on them. Maybe a phrase you know you will notice. Just something. As long as you see it and remember.
3. Place a sticker on the door/entrance of your workplace and your home. They have security stickers. They have credit card stickers. They have hours and rules posted. Whatever – your workplace should be happy to oblige you! This way if you miss it on your car you will be reminded again when you get to the door. On your house – this is a simple one. Parents leave kids in the car at home. They also accidentally leave their kids at home when they leave in the car. Since I assume you lock and unlock your doors or at least use the handle to open or close it – this should be a reminder either way to actually think about where your kids are.
4. Place a large stuffed animal in the car seat when it is unoccupied. When you put your child in, put the animal in the front seat. This is a visual reminder, says Jannette Fennell of Kids and Cars. Then when you leave make it a habit to get your child out and replace the animal in the back.
5. Put things you need for your activity in the back seat. Be it work, errands or other daily activities you have things you always take with you that you would usually have or need when you got to where you were going. If you were supposed to drop your child off you would notice when you went to grab your purse in the back seat and saw your sleeping child. And, unlike your child, who you would have thought you dropped off, you will miss your purse as soon as you go for your cup of coffee, to make a purchase, to put away your phone. If you get in the habit you will always be checking your back seat for your valuables.
6. Leave the Diaper Bag / Kid Supplies in the Front Seat. This is similar to the above, but is another idea to really make sure everything is in the wrong place so that you WILL know if your child is in the car and you WILL NOT forget them if you go to pick up your purse and see a diaper bag and then reach in the back and see your child.
7. Regularly Communicate with your Childcare Provider. This is a great idea anyway. Keep your childcare provider, be it a nanny or a daycare or a home facility, aware of your plans. Let them know what time you will be dropping off and ask them to contact you if they do not see your child at that time. If you are good at communicating with them, they should do the same for you. When you are looking for childcare, make sure this is something they will do. I made sure that besides the sign in sheet at our daycare, they used an attendance chart in the classrooms and they did, in fact, ask when a child was not there.
8. Get an alarm for your car seat. I have been thinking this for awhile but of course, like my other inventions, they already have one like it. I will tell you about both. What I actually think is that much like the seat belt beeper that goes off if someone is in a seat with no seat belt the auto manufacturers should put the same kind of device on each back seat station. You should be able to “alarm” it when you install the car seat. When you open your car door the car will say to you, “Don’t forget you have passengers in the back seat.” I would be fine if it said, in a screaming voice – “Hey Lady – Baby on Board. Get her out!”. Just something to make sure I was with it. Honda, Toyota, Dodge are you listening???? Volvo – come on you are all for safety!!!
Since this is not yet available on any cars that I know of you can use something like the Baby Alert Child Minder System. This retails for $69.95. It is a pad that goes in the seat and an alarm that goes on your key chain. If you walk more than 15 feet from the car while the child is in the seat. The alarm will sound. This will also make sure you do not run into gas stations or grocery stores, even in the winter, because that could get your child killed too. Many states have a ZERO seconds law that means no child may be left in car for any number of seconds. Good stuff. You could also use the Cars-N-Kids Car Seat Monitor. This monitor also senses the weight of the child, but it plays a lullaby whenever the car stops, reminding you that you have a baby in the car. This retails for $39.95. Personally I like the alarm better but either tackle the main objective – remember your baby is in the car!
9. Spread the Word. The more people who know how this can happen and how fast it can happen and that it could, in reality, happen to them, the more people will take some of these simple steps to make sure it does not happen. I thought maybe I will print 100 stickers and give them to my mommies group. Maybe I will hand some out at temple or church. Maybe I will include them in the goodie bags for Sophia’s party with a little note. This is not rude. This is not spoiling someones good time. It is possibly saving a life – many lives in reality – from being destroyed. Be open to talking about the hard times all parents have juggling their kids with their lives and their jobs, especially new parents who are adjusting to the changes and the lack of sleep and the car seats and the drop offs and all of the things that come at you the minute that baby comes out. The more open, the more people will know, and the more they will think before they lock their car and walk away from their beautiful child.
10. Look Around. Peek in Parked Cars. You are not some Peeping Tom. You are just casually walking by and glancing in back seats. I have seen kids in cars outside a grocery store before. Not a gas station (not that it matters) but a big grocery store. It can take 20 minutes to “run in and out” of a huge store. The mother walked out to her car as I was approaching a security guard to let him know. It was near 90 degrees outside. Had the doors not been locked I swear I would have opened them. We have a zero second law here so I would have been fine doing that, or calling 911 or probably breaking a window. People DO leave their kids. They do not always remember, or they think they will be right back, or they don’t know how dangerous it really is. If you notice a child and get that car open you may well save his or her life. That is worth a few weird glances your way. As a note, look in particular (or find a security guard to look) if you see or hear a car alarm going off but no one is around it. Some cars have motion detectors that will go off when they sense movement within and were locked using the key fob.
Don’t they say it takes 28 days to form a habit? Some things may seem silly or too simple but they are meant to insert a new basics routine in that dumb part of your brain that you will do even when you are the most tired the most stressed or the most out of your normal routine. They are meant to train you to remember your child, and harsh as that sounds, it is a good reminder for all of us.
I hope that you find some of these suggestions useful for you or someone you know with small children. Please remember to treat your vehicle as a dangerous object and not let children of any age near it to play or explore. Older kids get locked in cars accidentally themselves. Kids from toddlers on up can start cars and accidentally drive them. And babies can be forgotten.
Please help SPREAD THE WORD on this topic. You can use the share buttons below to send it by email or post it to your Facebook or other networking site. You can Tweet it from the top of the post or from below.
If you have any other suggestions I will update this post with them and spread your words as well.
Thank you for listening, thank you for sharing, thank you for loving your children and for keeping them safe.
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