Child Vehicular Heatstroke: A Mother’s Story

May 22nd, 2014

05.23.14_Kristie Reeves_Image1by Kristie C. Reeves-Cavaliero, Pharm.D
Founder, Ray Ray’s Pledge

“Forgotten backseat baby” syndrome. Child vehicular heatstroke. Did you ever hear these phrases in your parenting classes? Your hospital discharge counseling after you had your baby? Your pediatrician well-child visits? Nope? I never heard about it either, until after I lived the devastation first-hand. Why is that? Perhaps it is related to the discrepancy between public perception versus the reality of how these tragedies occur.

Most folks continue to dismiss these tragedies as acts committed by bad parents who intentionally left their child in the backseat. In fact, kids who were intentionally left behind in a vehicle comprise little more than 10 percent of all documented deaths due to vehicular heatstroke since 1990. Also fueling our disconnect from reality is the relative novelty of the phenomenon of “forgotten backseat baby” syndrome: Keep in mind that in our mothers’ generation this danger did not exist, because most of us rode in the front passenger seat in full view of the driver. Historical driving scenarios were quite different from having babies rear-facing in the backseat where visibility is significantly diminished. Add to this a sleeping baby whom you also cannot hear, and you have a recipe for disaster, unless you have a safety plan in place.

So, the next time someone dismisses “forgotten backseat baby” syndrome, gently remind her that this is a new danger to child passenger safety which CAN happen to anyone – even the most loving and attentive parent. It’s a risk subject to changes in routine and the kinds of stress-induced or fatigue-induced memory failure that we all experience at some point in our daily lives. Then share my story with her.


05.23.14_Kristie Reeves_Image3I lost my daughter, Sophia Rayne “Ray Ray” Cavaliero, to vehicular heatstroke on
Wednesday afternoon, May 25, 2011. That morning, our entire family overslept. In retrospect, I think we overslept because it was the first time Ray Ray slept through the night. We always called her our little alarm clock, because without fail she would awaken to nurse at 5 a.m., then sweetly drift back to sleep until about 7:30 a.m. Then we usually played with her for an hour or so before her daddy took her to daycare around 9 a.m. Ray Ray’s behavior was so predictable that I no longer set an alarm clock to awaken. That morning began with me awakening to my sweet child giving me precious kisses all over my face, followed by a glance at the clock. As I saw the time of 9:43 a.m., chaos ensued in my home. We had all overslept! Brett rushed to get dressed for work; I rushed to get Ray Ray fed and dressed for daycare. The entire family then hurried to daddy’s truck.

The defining event that led to Ray Ray’s death from vehicular heatstrokewas something very simple: ONE WRONG TURN. My husband usually made a left turn at the bottom of a major hill near our home to drop our child off at daycare. Afterward, he would circle back onto the same major highway and drive to his office. That morning, for unknown reasons, he made a right turn at that critical intersection. As Ray Ray sat silently rear-facing in the backseat, he had no clue along his work route that she was still in the truck. He couldn’t see her; he couldn’t hear her. Why did he make this wrong turn? We have asked this question daily for almost three years, and still have no answer. Could you imagine that one wrong turn (as I’m sure you have probably made a few times in your life, as well) could have such devastating consequences? We couldn’t either. We still can’t. But this is our reality, like a nightmare from which we cannot awaken.

Working with Safe Kids and HMHB, I began to share our story soon after Ray Ray’s death, as I learned more about this problem and began my work as an advocate for prevention. Here’s some of I’ve learned, and a call-to-action for prevention.


05.23.14_Kristie Reeves_Image5The danger to child passenger safety known as vehicular heatstroke (aka “child hot car deaths” or “vehicular hyperthermia”) was practically unheard of prior to a national initiative to restrain children in the backseat. This national directive came secondary to reports of child fatalities due to front passenger airbag (PAB) deployment in the early 1990s. These fatalities were stated by NHTSA to be an “unintended consequence” of the life-saving potential of front PABs.

Fast forward a few years. As we saw more and more parents comply with the “baby in the backseat” initiative, a horrific phenomenon began to surface in the media in the mid-late 1990s: something I call “forgotten backseat baby” syndrome. The rate of child vehicular heatstroke deaths, almost nonexistent excepting a few random incidents where a parent intentionally left a child in the car, began to skyrocket. Further, a trend in these cases also emerged: the children were NOT left intentionally; they were inadvertently forgotten in the backseat. Today, it continues to be the culprit in the majority of child hot car deaths.

Sadly, the rate of child vehicular heatstroke deaths has remained relatively constant since the late 1990s, with an average of 38 children lost each year due to this often unrecognized danger to child passenger safety. Last year 44 children were lost to vehicular heatstroke. And 2010 was the deadliest year on record, claiming 49 precious children. Since 1998, more than 600 families have been decimated by a danger most had never even heard of previously.

When including cases from the early 1990s during the transition to the “baby in the back” standard, we are currently approaching the 700th case, and will surpass that number during 2014. Most of these kids under age two, and they were inadvertently forgotten in the backseat, most commonly by an otherwise loving, doting, responsible parent; a pillar of society. Most frequently they were forgotten during what should have been their morning trip to daycare.


05.23.14_Kristie Reeves_Image4Friday, May 23, 2014 is designated National Heat Awareness Day by the National Weather Service/ NOAA. This year for the first time, several acclaimed child safety advocates, including National Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies Coalition (HMHB), will join forces for awareness and advocacy, posting hourly child vehicular #heatstroke facts and prevention tips on social media outlets.

Please join us in elevating public awareness of this under-recognized danger to child passenger safety by following the conversation; sharing our posts with colleagues, family, and friends; and tagging your posts and tweets with #heatstroke. Learn more in our press release and speak up for prevention. It takes a village of mothers (and fathers, and childcare providers, and healthcare providers!) to keep all of our babies healthy and safe. Together we can be lifesavers.