Family & Parenting

After Her Baby Died From Being Left In A Hot Car, This Mom Is Telling Other Parents How To Prevent Similar Tragedies

This small change in your routine could save your child's life.

It was just another workday for Karen Osorio when she received an alarming phone call: Her 15-month-old daughter, Sofia Aveiro, wasn’t at the daycare center at pick-up time, her husband said.

Frightened, Osorio, a senior scientist at Procter & Gamble Co. in Cincinnati, Ohio, ran to her car in the office parking lot.

That’s when she saw Sofia, still buckled in her car seat in the backseat. The toddler died after spending more than nine hours in her mother’s hot car. She had been left there unintentionally.

Osorio’s 15-month-old daughter is one of 42 kids who died last year from car-related heatstroke, according to No Heat Stroke, a research initiative out of San Jose State University.

car photo
Getty Images | Matt Cardy

When it comes to why these hot car deaths occur, Osorio is not an outlier. According to No Heat Stroke, 54 percent of hot car-related deaths since 1998 happened after a caregiver left their little one in the car unintentionally (only 18 percent of fatalities were due to intentional neglect).

It’s a phenomenon known as Forgotten Baby Syndrome — or FBS — a condition where a parent’s executive brain functioning is so bogged down by stress, lack of sleep, emotions and changes in routine that their working memory short-circuits, kicking in the involuntary brain process.

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In other words, everything you do becomes automatic until something snaps you out of it — like your baby crying in the backseat.

But sometimes your child is asleep, which means you won’t have their cries as a trigger to jolt your working memory awake, and run the risk of leaving them in the car.

Bag in the Back

And that’s something Osorio understands, which is why she launched the “Bag in the Back” public awareness campaign.

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The Bag in the Back campaign urges parents to leave an essential personal item — think laptop, ID badge, cell phone or briefcase — in the backseat so that, before you lock your car, you’re forced to open the back door to retrieve your item. This helps minimize the risk of leaving your child in the car unintentionally, Osorio says.

“We wanted to drive the adoption of the habit of putting a bag in the backseat so parents, if they lose awareness, will catch themselves,” Osorio told The Wall Street Journal.

Car Seating
Flickr | Raelene G

The “bag in the back” habit is a simple but smart way to avoid a preventable tragedy. But there are some other things parents can do to prevent something like this happening to them, such as always opening your car’s back door no matter what.

You can keep a stuffed animal in the car seat when not in use, so when your baby is in the seat, their furry friend rides shotgun, reminding you that your kid’s in the back.

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Or, if you’re tech-inclined, you can download Kars4Kids’ Bluetooth-enabled safety app, which sounds the alarm anytime you and your phone leave the car, prompting you to check the backseat.

You should also always have a plan with your daycare or school provider so that if your little one doesn’t show up without notice, a staff member will call to check in.

Any parent is capable of leaving their child in the backseat of their car, especially if they’re overwhelmed.

Making one or more of these tips part of your routine, though, could save your baby’s life.

New Report: 37 Children Die In Hot Cars Each Year

The official start of summer comes later this month, but already children have died after being left unattended in hot cars, according to the nonprofit National Safety Council, drawing attention to an issue that kills an average of 37 children a year.

The council released a report this month that says 742 US children died of heatstroke in vehicles between 1998 and 2017. Forty-two children died in these conditions in 2017, up from 39 the previous year.

Just 21 states have laws regarding this issue, the report says; eight include the possibility of felony charges for individuals who deliberately leave a child alone.

“There is a patchwork system across the country,” said Amy Artuso, the council’s senior program manager of advocacy. “We are calling for codification or increased consistency across the states. Either pass legislation, or improve existing legislation to better protect children.”

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The Main Instances When Children Are Left In Cars

The report highlights the three main circumstances that result in pediatric vehicular hyperthermia: Fifty-five percent were parents or other caregivers unknowingly leaving a child behind, 27 percent were children gaining access to a car on their own, and 18 percent were parents or caregivers purposely leaving a child inside.

Typically, a caregiver plans to keep the child in the car for only a few minutes to run an errand and has no malicious intent. However, the sun creates a “greenhouse effect” in vehicles, according to a 2005 study. On an 86-degree day, the temperature in a car can increase by 19 degrees in as little as 10 minutes. A child’s body overheats faster than an adult’s and can start shutting down before then.

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“We want parents to always look before they lock,” Artuso said. “Many parents who have lived this nightmare have said their mind was on autopilot.”

Stephanie Salvilla of Orlando, Florida, is one of those parents.

One morning in July 2009, she was running on four hours of sleep and adjusting to a new routine. Her husband put the children in the car that morning, so she did not place bottles in the front seat as a reminder like she normally did.

Salvilla first dropped off her 5-year-old daughter, and she says her brain “rebooted” when she saw her work building. Her 5-month-old son, Gannon, stayed behind in the car and the blistering Florida sun. She spent the day chatting to colleagues about him and planning weekend activities. It was after work when she found her son lifeless in her car.

Salvilla now speaks with parents to remind them that the experience could happen to anyone.

“Maybe they feel like a good parent could never forget,” she said. “Maybe they feel like their love for their child would supersede their nerve cells and memory cells.”

Salvilla also works with the safety organization KidsAndCars.org advocating for technology in cars to remind parents to check the back seat before locking up and walking away.

RELATED: Why 1 Baby Was Unharmed And The Other Almost Died In The Same Car Accident

The Importance Of Reminders

“There are reminders to put your seat belt on, turn off the headlights and take the key out of the ignition,” said Janette Fennell, president and founder of KidsAndCars.org. “There should be something that tells you if you’ve left your child behind.”

Salvilla says such reminders would have helped her. “With one simple change of routine that morning, I lost my son, and it was my fault,” she said. “I needed those visual cues, and it failed.”

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Provisions to require visual or audio reminders for children left in cars have been included in the federal SELF DRIVE Act, which was introduced and passed the House in 2017. The comparable AV START Act was introduced in the Senate the same year and passed the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation and awaits confirmation by the full Senate.

The new National Safety Council report also calls for the protection of anyone who acts in “good faith” to save a child from a hot car, the removal of “safe” time periods when kids may be left unattended in cars and the allocation of money from fines to education programs for parents, caregivers and offenders.

While supporters wait for these technological upgrades, the council and KidsAndCars.org advise caregivers to keep purses, cell phones or even a shoe in the back seat as a mental prompt to look before locking. Setting up a system with child care providers to contact guardians if a child does not show up as expected could also lead to a decrease in these preventable deaths, they say.

Written by Maritza Moulite for CNN.

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