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Parents can prevent deadly heatstroke
By Alicia Barnes
School of Human Sciences
MISSISSIPPI STATE – Distractions, fatigue and stress have contributed to the vehicular heatstroke deaths of an estimated 610 children over the past 21 years.
With fatalities occurring in the spring, summer, and fall every year, the Mississippi Child Care Resource and Referral Network at the Mississippi State University Extension Service wants parents and caregivers to be aware of the danger of children being left in vehicles.
While some children are injured playing inside unlocked cars, most fatal accidents happen when a parent or caregiver who does not normally take the child to childcare inadvertently leaves him or her inside the vehicle.
“Structure is important for children and adults. When you do a task day after day, like driving to work, those steps become automatic. That is why a change in routine can be dangerous,” Melissa Tenhet, a project director for the MSCCR&R Network said.
To prevent this tragedy, the MSCCR&R Network encourages parents to let childcare providers know when their children will be absent or late.
“When you have that established relationship with your childcare provider, she or he can call you when your child does not arrive as planned,” Tenhet said.
In addition to communicating planned absences with caregivers, Tenhet suggested that parents purposefully alter their routines when they have a child in the car.
“Put your cell phone, your wallet, or something personal that you need that morning in the backseat next to your child,” Tenhet said. “Children fall asleep. When they’re quiet, even if you’re listening to children’s music, your brain goes to the next activity. You have to build in a stop in your routine that makes you open the back door.”
“Putting an important, work-related item in the backseat will help you slow down. Also, if it is not your day to drop off at childcare, make it part of your routine to call or text your spouse to confirm with him or her that you have dropped off your child,” Tenhet said. “Or your spouse can also call childcare directly to ensure the child arrived.”
Parents and caregivers can also use inexpensive car seat mirrors to view infants in rear-facing car seats. Another option is to keep a large stuffed animal in the front passenger seat as a reminder of the child in the backseat. The stuffed animal should be moved to the front seat when a child is in the car seat.
Technology can help, too. “Use your cell phone to set a reminder about your child,” Tenhet said.
Regardless of how children enter the vehicle, once they become trapped the situation can quickly become tragic. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, heatstroke is the leading cause of non-crash, vehicle-related deaths for children under the age of 14. Most deaths occur among children ages 3 and younger.
“Data from the San Francisco State University Department of Geosciences show 33 children died last year due to heatstroke – medically termed ‘hyperthermia’ – while there were at least 49 deaths in 2010,” NHTSA materials explain. “Even cool temperatures in the 60s can cause the temperature to rise well above 110 degrees Fahrenheit inside your car. The inside temperature can rise almost 20 degrees within the first 10 minutes.”
Because young children, especially infants, have underdeveloped abilities to sweat and adapt to heat, they quickly become at risk for hearing loss, blindness, brain damage and heatstroke when trapped in hot vehicles.
To help parents employ easy but life-saving strategies, the MSCCR&R Network offers the following preventative tips:
- Make a habit of looking in the front and back of vehicles before locking the doors. Lock the door with a key, not a remote, because it requires another look inside the car.
- Always lock cars and keep keys and remotes away from children. Teach children a vehicle is not a play area and store keys out of a child’s reach. According to Kidsandcars.org, 31 percent of vehicular heatstroke deaths occurred when children got into cars on their own.
- Never leave a child unattended in a vehicle even if the windows are partially open or the engine is running and the air conditioning is on. Nearly 12 percent of vehicular heatstroke deaths occurred when children were intentionally left in vehicles.
Child safety has to be a conscious daily effort by everyone. The NHTSA urges all people to call 911 immediately when they see a child alone in a car.
“Everything we know about child heatstroke in motor vehicles is that this can happen to anyone from any walk of life – and the majority of these cases are accidental tragedies that can strike even the most loving and conscientious parents,” NHTSA Administrator David L. Strickland said in a recent press release.
Parents and caregivers can learn more about child safety by visiting the NHTSA website at http://www.nhtsa.gov or by contacting their local MSCCR&R Network site at (866) 706-8827 or http://www.childcaremississippi.org. The MSCCR&R Network is funded by the Mississippi Department of Human Services.