Kids in Cars

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By Tracy G. Cassels

Today I shared the story of a NZ mom who left her sleeping infant in the car while she did some grocery shopping.  My own point of view is this:  I would not do this because the thought of my child waking up with me gone and crying for me and me not being there is something I could never do.  It’s why we co-sleep, it’s why I babywear (well, wore, she walks everywhere now), it’s why I don’t do controlled crying or cry-it-out (CIO).  I actually aim to educate people on the effects of crying so that they hopefully make decisions about their children with that information in mind.  But never would I call a mother who does CIO “evil” or that she should be “shot” or that she “shouldn’t have kids”.   All things said about this mother here.

Now, part of what interested me about this story is that we have a real fear of leaving kids in cars.  And by and large it’s an irrational fear, based on the fact that while any of the “what ifs” that people come up with are very unlikely to happen, the outcome is disastrous.  We colour things that way.  For example…

What if someone stole the car with the baby in it?  This happens, but unbelievably rarely.  And when you read many cases, the cars were unlocked at the time of the theft.  At gas stations, for example, while going in to pay, parents have left doors unlocked (and in some cases keys in ignition).  In San Jose, CA this recently happened when a woman was loading her car, leaving it open while she went in and out of the house.  But statistically this is highly unlikely.

What if the baby suffocated?  This also happens in hot weather, and in this case it is summer in NZ.  However, from what I could gather the day was rainy and cool and this is confirmed by friends in NZ.  In the entirety of the United States, this happened 32 times last year.  Hyperthermia is definitely a concern, but also depends on how long the parent is gone and the temperature outside.

What if the baby spat up and choked?  A horrible thing to think of and something that could happen.  Again, this is rare, but happens.  Where my question of the outrage came from is why people were calling for this mother to lose her child when families leave children sleeping in car seats regularly in the home or in other rooms where this is just as likely?

What if there was a car accident?  Well yes, but I would be much more concerned about the potential accident on the streets while driving at higher speeds.  In fact, I would bet that individuals who do not have their children properly restrained have put their children at a much higher risk than this baby was in.

What if the baby woke up and cried?  Yes, I see the concern here, and it’s the reason I wouldn’t do this.  But lots of people leave babies to cry and we don’t crucify them.

How about it’s illegal?  Only in some places.  In the US there are states with no laws on the books about leaving children in cars unattended.  In this case, the police have said it would warrant a discussion and getting the mom the help she needs.


Look, I get that people become outraged when a child is placed in what they believe to be danger.  I get it. And there are clearly very valid reasons NOT to leave a baby in the car.  But is it abuse?  Should a parent be vilified?  Our fear doesn’t always lead to the appropriate responses.  We think of our children and what we would do and we react viscerally.  And in that we forget other situations that have some similar risks yet we don’t speak of crucifying the mother.

strollers babies snow


Have you seen pictures like this?  They are babies in Scandinavian countries who are set outside to nap in the cold.  By themselves.  I’ve shared them and no one seemed to jump on all of the “what ifs” that could go wrong.  It’s culturally acceptable.  And yet many (though not all) of the same points could be raised.

What about this?

baby knife


In many traditional societies, babies are allowed to do as they please, including playing with knives, playing close to fire, etc.  Children are seen as autonomous and that they will learn from the consequences.  Would I do this?  No.  Would I trash a parent who does?  No.

And this is the crux of the issue.  Statistically, this baby was not at great risk.  Was there a risk?  Of course!  But the risk was not great.  Now, there are other factors to this story including poverty and the store being the cheapest around (which in poverty matters as she was perhaps forced to go to a store that was harder to run in and out of as quickly as she’d like) that influence my thinking on it too.  There’s also a lot we don’t know.  What is her support system?  When did baby last sleep?  When did she last sleep?

At the end of the day, would I tell anyone to leave their child?  Of course not, that’s ridiculous.  Will I say that leaving your child in a car is inherently dangerous?  No.  I will say it depends on a lot of circumstances that will either increase the risk to being high or lower it (e.g., weather, time in store or gas station) and while I would not suggest it or even do it, it is not an immediate death sentence.  If something does go wrong though, it was a preventable death, and that’s where the tragedies lie (however, often other deaths are preventable as well and yet we don’t get up in arms).  But will I stand up and say this mother does NOT deserve the crap she’s getting?  Of course.  She made a calculated decision and weighed the risks and acted.  And the risks, though present, were not that high.  We can sit back and say what we would or would not do in that situation but we don’t know because we don’t actually know the full situation.

People come here because I share science-based information.  In this case, I share that the risks aren’t very high and yet that’s not what people want to hear.  That’s okay.  But just to put this in perspective before I sign off, in the United States, 32 babies died from being left in cars (all forgotten and left for hours), some more were kidnapped, but from my own readings, all were returned safely, but 741 babies died from preventable diseases due to formula use.  I don’t condone calling moms who use formula “evil” or that they “shouldn’t have children” so why on earth would I support it here?

[Image Credit: Gawker]

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  1. Lea King says

    Well said. Note: I did let my son play with knives when he was 2 years old, after learning proper knife safety, so I may not exactly be your most unbiased reader :)

  2. says

    good post. I feel the same about the baby in the car and eveything else you wrote. I have done this before – left a sleeping child in the car while I ran into a shop for 42 seconds. As a NZer living in Japan I don’t do this often – but by Japanese standards I am very strict with these kind of things. Leaving babies and kids in cars here seems to be quite common and every year there will be a news report about a dumb parent who left a young child or baby in a car in the middle of summer while they were shopping or at pachinko (gambling) for a couple of HOURS. Craziness and insanity. Not to mention the parent who put their young child into the storage compartment of a scooter while they drove to the shops. THOSE parents need to be reprimanded or have their children taken off them. I do feel sorry for the NZ woman. A quick run into the supermarket to get a nappy (have no idea what she was actually buying though) while her baby finally slept after 72 hours of 30 minute power naps and no sleep herself. Being a new mum is tough.
    Thanks for the good post.

  3. Genevieve says

    I just want to share that at least here in the desert, it is absolutely NEVER a good idea. It gets hot FAST and there are a lot of cases of animals (for example) dying even out here. I’ve been stuck in a locked car once on a hot day (hubs ran into the store, didn’t think about leaving me for 10 minutes) and I had to climb into the front seat and unlock the door and set the alarms off because I was having a hard time breathing it got so hot so fast. There is a real danger, and the unfortunate thing is that it is very true – we don’t have the support we should have to make this sort of thing unnecessary!!

    • says

      Absolutely there are places and conditions for which the risk is HUGE and suddenly it’s a different story! Totally get it. In this particular situation though it seems it was rainy and cool and it was a short time. I just hope that the mom gets support if needed so that she doesn’t have to do this!

  4. Arual says

    I appreciate your measured approach to this issue. I’m not entirely unbiased. I have left my kid(s) in the car for several minutes–and every time I do it, I am paranoid that somebody is going to trash me as an awful mother or call the police on me, even though I am very cautious regarding weather conditions (never hot or warm weather–only cold or cool) and I never allow myself to get distracted or held up in the process. Nonetheless, there are obviously many that would love to crucify me for making a choice they feel is endangerment to my child.

    Parents make all kinds of choices based on personal risk analysis and while they can be better informed, deciding that they have no sense of judgement because of one choice they made that you don’t agree with is reckless and cruel.

    I hope more people read this article and can come to realize this one act does not make someone a bad parent.

  5. Leanne Ray says

    Thank you so much for posting this. The small minded people who were abusing this woman were really getting me down. Thank you for being so open.

  6. Anne says

    I think one of the reasons people got so worked up with this is its an ingrained knee-jerk reaction: if you live in a place that gets hot, you’ll be heavily indoctrinated with “don’t leave your child (or animal) in a car for even a few moments, they’ll DIE!!!!” So seeing this, it is a strong visceral reaction. (I saw an example of this phenomenon recently, when my husband attempted to stop me from moving a slab of concrete slightly covered in leaves. I was startled at the strength of his reaction. When I questioned why, he then laughingly said “because of scorpions”… by then realising that we were in Scotland, not Texas, and scorpions weren’t a danger.)

    It is sometimes difficult to override such a deep-seated indoctrination with specifics of a situation (e.g., rainy, cool day…) or knowledge of differing levels of risk. Somewhere else I think we see this is co-sleeping. It has been so demonized in some places that I’ve encountered people who are unable to get beyond the co-sleeping = death connection, and are completely unmoved by the facts about lower rates of SIDS with safe co-sleeping (no, no, it goes UP!!! I would never do that!).

    • Anne says

      Oh, just realised it might look like I was equating co-sleeping and leaving babies in cars — not what I meant! Just that the strong response got me to thinking about another strong response. Co-sleeping has benefits if done safely, I can’t think of any ‘benefits’ of leaving a baby alone in a car…

      • says

        No – I think it’s a great equation when talking about fear. Though clearly we know there are benefits of co-sleeping if done safely. But the fear link is quite valid!

  7. says

    Very well said Tracy! Your post is very interesting! I agree that leaving a child in a car should depend on a lot of circumstances and also the situation; better yet, not do it at all. Unless you can see that there is absolutely no risk or it is totally safe, then go ahead if you must but never leave him/her for a long period of time. I think just a couple of minutes at max would be fine (ex. picking up groceries, picking up laundry, etc.) Thank you for sharing this post! :)

  8. Jespren says

    Awesome response! Statistically the kid is more likely to get injuried walking from parking lot to store (carried by mom obviously) by a traffic or cart accident than harmed by being left in a car provided correct temperature. In our ‘worst first’ culture it’s so easy to blow risks out of proportion and into the statosphere. No, I wouldn’t do this with a babe for the crying reason, at least any of mine. But I’ve known babes who slept happily in their car seats without fear of waking, and leaving *them* in the car wouldn’t be a big deal. I leave my 3 and 4 year old in the car sometimes while I run into a store, it depends upon where, when, and temperature, it’s not an automatic ‘hey, I don’t want to get them out so I’ll just leave them here’ it’s a thoughtful decision based upon (realistic!) risks and the ‘rewards’ (ease and speed mostly). Unfortunately, as noticed by many of the reactions to this story, the biggest ‘risk’ is some neurotic stranger who thinks they care more about your kids than you do who calls some equally neurotic stranger who happens to be a social worker or cop. Because, yes, hopefully the police or social worker recognizes that no laws were broken and no harm was done, but, unfortunately, parents have been arrested (no charges or charges later dropped) and kids taken away because the ‘authority figure’ was just as ‘worst first’ irrational as the initial busybody.

    • says

      Thank you! I was wondering your thoughts – it seemed something you’d agree with me on, but then you didn’t reply :) I started to wonder!!!

  9. Jespren says

    Well, I must shamefully admit I just haven’t been by the site recently. I really love that you included some pictures and examples of how normal things many in our society would deem horrible are just totally normal (and kids don’t disapear or suffer horrible consequences, at least (in the cases of non-industrialized societies) not due to those practicies.) I know I’ve brought this up on previous threads but I really feel this is a sort of racism. That little African tyke is somehow smart and capable enough to not kill himself when left alone for five minutes, skewer himself on a knife, drown in two inches of water, or walk away with some ner’do well stranger without putting up a fuss to bring help from good adults, but somehow our tykes lack these mental capacities? Lack even the ability to learn to have such mental capacities? And it’s the same with mothers. An African, Asian, or South American mother is perfectly capable of tending the family store/fields/cart, or otherwise participate in the economy with a baby strapped to her back (side, front, apron string) but an American/Canadian/et all isn’t? I don’t necessarily know that it’s intentional racism, but thinking we categorically can’t do these things, that our kids can’t do these things, when members of other cultures have no problem doing these things is certainly a form of racism. (I actually hate the term ‘racism’ since their is only one ‘race’, it really should be ‘culturalism’)

  10. aP says

    I used to have very rigid beliefs of right n wrong – but by baby #2- I’m flexible- as long as the parent I’m speaking to is focused on the needs of the kids over themselves- their methods mean less to me now, but I prefer company of kids who promote positive habits in my kids-and I’ve done the sleeping in fresh air- summer time playpen while I overlook from kitchen window – and winter in stroller But not alone-

    I don’t agree with all points but I love reading the articles

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