Don't judge over parents leaving babies in hot cars: it could happen to anyone

Image: Shutterstock
Image: Shutterstock 

OPINION: Last week there was a spate of stories about babies left in hot cars.

Each time it was the mother who had left the child to go shopping or to the pub, and each time an angry person had spotted the child, rung the police, and presumably the media, and exchanged terse words with the hapless mother. 

Outrage ensued in the comments, vilifying the woman and praising the rescuers. Some comments were feral.

Oh, how we love a story about a bad mother. How good and righteous it makes us feel about ourselves.

Suddenly we can forget about our own little failures because surely nothing we have ever done is worse than leaving a baby in a hot car. And we would never ever do such a thing.

Except it's not as clear-cut as we think. I am always shocked when I read news reports of these incidents at how nasty the person 'rescuing' the baby is. They often proudly report shouting at the parent and hoping their child will be taken away from them.

They have no idea about this mother's life: What if she was suffering severe postnatal depression? What if she was battling addiction or just general exhaustion from having a baby? What if it was a horrible mistake and the parent simply forgot the child in the car? Would it kill the rescuer to show some compassion and kindness?

Of course, leaving a baby in a hot car is wrong and potentially fatal. And I understand why people finding them feel they have to call the police. But they could also check the parent is OK and offer them help.  

In many cases, when parents forget their babies in the car - perhaps the baby is asleep and the parent is exhausted and something in the routine has changed that day and they just forget the baby is even there.

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That happened in a tragic story reported by the Washington Post in 2009. It's well worth a read.

In the US, about 20 children die of hyperthermia, essentially baking in their carseats, each year, the article reports. In some of those cases, parents are neglectful, abusive, drug addicts or mentally unwell, but in about half the cases, loving parents have a tragic lapse of attention.

These parents had always believed only a monster could leave a baby in a car - until it happened to them.

As the author of the article writes: "What kind of person forgets a baby? The wealthy do, it turns out. And the poor, and the middle class. Parents of all ages and ethnicities do it. Mothers are just as likely to do it as fathers. It happens to the chronically absent-minded and to the fanatically organised, to the college-educated and to the marginally literate.

In the last 10 years, it has happened to a dentist. A postal clerk. A social worker. A police officer. An accountant. A soldier. A paralegal. An electrician. A Protestant clergyman. A rabbinical student. A nurse. A construction worker. An assistant principal. It happened to a mental health counsellor, a college professor and a pizza chef. It happened to a paediatrician. It happened to a rocket scientist."

So next time you see a baby left in a car - or read a story about it - take a deep breath and remember you don't know anything about the parent who made this mistake, and that it could happen to anyone.

The Press on Stuff.co.nz