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]