Ridgefield, CT – Forgetting a baby alone in the back seat of a car to bake in the summer heat — an unthinkable tragedy — is often blamed on negligence or bad parenting.
Barbara Baughman understands the reaction, but she also understands how such a simple act of forgetfulness — with potentially heart-wrenching consequences — might occur. A mother of six, she was once made the very mistake herself.
“It is a terrible, terrible, terrible, terrible tragedy,” Baughman said Tuesday, a day after a 15-month-old in her hometown was found dead in the back seat of a car.
Monday’s tragedy in Ridgefield was one of three cases of children left in hot cars in a 24-hour period in Connecticut alone. The infant's death was one of 19 similar cases reported so far in 2014, including the troubling story of a Georgia man accused of intentionally leaving his 22-month-old son in the car for the better part of a day.
All of these incidents, including the one in their hometown reminded the Baughman family of a lesson they learned over a decade ago: the dangers of leaving a child in a hot car are real and could happen to anyone.
“We take so many things for granted that we sometimes forget the obvious dangers,” Baughman said. “People have to realize just a few minutes is all it takes.”
Twelve years ago, the Baughman family was moving from one home to another. Over the course of two weeks, they followed the same routine: shuttling between homes, with the parents moving the boxes and furniture while the older kids looked after the younger.
On one warm afternoon, with all the stresses of moving a family and an additional child in tow — one of the kid’s friends — everyone was distracted. No one had an eye on Emma, the Baugham’s 6-month-old daughter.
“Every single time for 2 weeks [one of the older kids] took Emma, but not that time,” Baughman said. “Everyone thought someone else had her.”
After almost 45 minutes, the family realized baby Emma was missing.
19 Child Deaths So Far: A Typical Year
“The biggest mistake a parent could make is to think this couldn’t happen to them,” said Sue Auriemma, vice-president of KidsAndCars.org, a research organization dedicated to raising awareness about the dangers vehicles pose to children. “It happens to the most loving and caring parents.”
With school out and summer temperatures on the rise, more and more reports have surfaced of kids being left in cars, with tragic endings.
- A Florida boy, 9 months old, forgotten in a truck for several hours.
- A 22-month-old Georgia boy left alone in the back seat for the better part of a day.
- A 15-month-old girl left in a car for 7 hours in Dogleville, N.Y.
Despite the flurry of reports, 2014 is about on pace to match the annual average for child deaths in hot vehicles, according to Auriemma.
On average, 38 children are killed every year due to heat stroke after being forgotten in cars.
There were 44 and 34 heat stroke related child deaths in cars nationwide in 2013 and 2012, respectively, according to KidsAndCars.org. A 20-year high of 49 deaths were recorded in 2010.
Child deaths from heat stroke began trending up dramatically in 1998 along with awareness of the dangers airbags pose to children in the front seat.
From 1990 to 1997, a total of 90 reported cases of children dying of heat stroke in cars were reported, an average of just over 11 per year. From 1998 to 2005, that number more than tripled to 304, an average of 38 per year.
As more parents began putting their children in the back of the car, more children were being forgotten.
“The rear seat is absolutely the safest place for a child," Auriemma stressed. “But measures need to be taken.”
Experts suggest taking simple steps to remind yourself that your child is in the back seat, like leaving your purse or briefcase in the back seat so that you have to check back there before leaving your car. Another is to leave a stuffed animal buckled into the carseat that will ride up front as a reminder when your child is in the back.
The most important thing is to make checking part of your routine.
Stress and Automatic Memory
Driving around town with her own young grandson Monday, Baughman recalled her own experience of leaving Emma in a hot car for 45 minutes, more than enough time for a child to die from heat stroke.
Baugham and her family were lucky. Emma was found safe in the family van but only by a stroke of luck. One of Baughman’s five other children had been car sick and left a window down, allowing enough air in the car for Emma to survive. She’s now a vibrant teenager — and avid Scrabble player.
If the window had been up, the story would likely have a tragic ending.
“Watching my grandson yesterday, it was all I could think about,” she said, remembering the sharp anxiety and feeling of relief when they discovered Emma safe.
After their close call 12 years ago, the Baughman family decided to take action and began making window decals that remind parents, “Closed Cars Don’t Breathe, Check Your Seats Before You Leave!” (Mother Barbara came up with the slogan and sisters Madison and Katie did the artwork and came up with the idea.)
“Put it on the front windshield or front passenger window or on the door to the garage,” wherever it will get noticed, Baughman said. “It’s just a simple reminder — and that’s all we need, just a reminder to look back.”
The human brain processes memory in two ways: consciously and automatically, with the latter taking over whenever stress mounts.
“When you’re driving somewhere you know — like driving to work — how many times have you gotten to a place and wondered how you got there?” Auriemma offered, explaining our automatic memory at work. “Any stress whatsoever and our brains default to that automatic memory,” putting people on autopilot.
“We’ve had parents drive back to the daycare center to pick their child up [with the child still in the car], sure they had dropped them off earlier,” she said. All it takes is “a little change in routine and usually some stress involved.”
“Those cars don’t breathe,” Baughman said, referencing the decal’s catchy tagline. “People don’t realize how quickly they can heat up. They think they’ll only be in the store for 5 minutes but it always ends up taking longer.”
The infant who passed away Monday evening in Ridgefield was in the vehicle for “an extended period of time,” according to police, however, “People have to realize just a few minutes is all it takes,” Baughman said.
For more tips, check out KidsAndCars.org and stop by EmmasInspirations.com for a decal.
Have you ever had a close call forgetting a child in a car?