Leaving babies and children unattended

It’s important to always take your baby with you when you’re out and about – it’s against the law for a person responsible for a baby or child to leave them alone without someone to look after them. This includes leaving a child at home, or in a car, or anywhere else unattended. For more information, see Raising Children.

Leaving babies and children in cars

Never leave your baby in a car

Even with the air conditioning on, leaving a baby or child in the car puts them at high risk of heatstroke, dehydration or death, particularly in summer.

  • Even on a mild day, the temperature inside a parked car can be 20 to 30 degrees hotter than the temperature outside.
  • Large cars heat up just as fast as smaller ones, and leaving the windows down slightly has little effect on the inside temperature.
  • Most of the temperature rise happens in the first five minutes after closing the car – the time it takes to run in and out of the shop that you’re popping into.
  • A child’s body temperature rises three to five times faster than an adults' – making the impact of heat on their small bodies almost immediate.

Fatal distraction and short-term memory

Short-term memory is used for temporary information, like reminding ourselves to pick up milk on the way home. When people become tired, stressed, distracted, or there is a break in routine, short-term memory can fail and cause habitual memory to take over.

Parents or carers manage many competing demands every day, and short-term memory is vulnerable when under pressure. Our short-term memory can only hold five to nine things at one time, and when this memory is overloaded, new tasks or distractions from routine mean that some items begin to be forgotten regardless of their importance. No one is immune from this type of memory failure.

In recent times, there have been incidents in Australia and around the world where parents or carers, believing a child to be elsewhere and safe, have unknowingly left a child in a car, with tragic outcomes.

For example, an exhausted parent may drive straight to work along their normal route rather than stopping to drop a child off at childcare, inadvertently leaving the child in the car when they arrive.

They are performing a routine task that involves little conscious thought – almost like being on ‘autopilot’—and do not remember that they have forgotten something. Accidentally leaving a child in a car is sometimes known as fatal distraction, and it can happen to anyone.

Unfortunately, the consequences can be devastating.

Look Before You Lock

Remember that anyone – mums, dads, carers – can accidentally leave their child in a car. Tiredness, stress or a change in routine can all interfere with short-term memory, and there are strategies that can help create safer routines that lower the risk of this happening.

Create a safer routine

There are some steps that people can work into daily routines to help lower the risk of inadvertently leaving a child in a car:

  • open the back door of the car every time you park, even if there is no one in the back seat
  • place a child’s bag or cuddly toy in the front seat as a reminder
  • leave a bag, phone or wallet in the back seat of the car
  • use a mirror for rear facing car seats
  • create a mental list of things to check each time you leave the car, for example, ‘baby, keys, wallet and phone’.

For tips on setting up a safer car routine, visit Look Before You Lock.