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Can you leave your child asleep in the car?

What Should I Do If I See a Child Alone in a Car?

If you see a child alone in a car, try to find the parents or contact local authorities. Supervision by adults is the best way to keep children safe in most situations, and a locked car is no exception. Children who are left alone in a car are at risk for several dangers, including heatstroke.

Recent news reports about parents being prosecuted and losing custody of children after leaving them in cars has discouraged some people from getting involved if they see a child alone in a car.

While no one wants to unnecessarily cause pain and disruption to a family unit, the safety of children must always be the top concern. To that end, if you observe a child alone in a car and are unable to easily locate the parent or guardian, you should contact the police.

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Kids left alone in cars are at high risk for injury

Calling the police is not an overreaction, especially when you consider that 23 children died of heatstroke after being left in cars in 2021. 1 Heatstroke deaths of children in vehicles are completely preventable, which is why contacting emergency personnel is vital if you see a child or baby left alone in a car and can’t find their parent or guardian.

In addition to heatstroke danger, children in cars are also vulnerable to injury—especially if they can move around the car. Children could potentially put a car out of gear, which poses a threat to them and to any people or property nearby.

Many adults feel it is reasonable to leave children in a car if it’s only for a few minutes while they run into a store or shop to conduct an errand, but the risks simply aren’t worth it.

Never ignore a child left alone in a car

When considering whether to contact the authorities, take into account the age of the child or children that have been left unattended in a vehicle. If they are old enough to speak with you, ask them how long they’ve been in the car, and where their parent or guardian went.

In these cases, you can try to find the parent or guardian before contacting the police, as this can be a less traumatic resolution for all involved. However, under no circumstances should you completely ignore a child left alone inside a car.

How this happens and how to prevent it

According to data spanning from 1998 to 2022, about 25% of children who died of heatstroke in cars (also called «pediatric vehicular heatstroke» or PVH) got into the car on their own. 1 Prevent this by keeping cars locked at all times and storing keys where kids can’t reach them. Make sure kids are supervised and that they know the car is off-limits for play.

Over half of all kids who died of heatstroke in a car were forgotten by their parents. Use a car seat alarm to remind yourself that your kiddo’s in the back.

Around 20% of PVH deaths happened when a parent intentionally left their child in the car, such as when running errands. Always bring your child with you.

Can you leave your child asleep in the car?

November 3, 2022

Most parents are familiar with the following situation. You need to run a quick errand and you’re confident you can make it out and back before nap time. You buckle your kiddos up in the car, and on the way home you look back and one of your littles has fallen asleep. Rats! It’s still an hour before their scheduled nap time. Every time this happens you know they will struggle with naps or bedtime later on in the day.

What’s the Down and Dirty with Car Naps?

The feeling of constant gentle motion that children experience while riding in the car often puts them in a relaxed, sleepy state. For some kids, even if nap is still an hour or two away, they’ll nod off for a nap in their car seat after enough time spent in the car.

If car naps are common in your family, you have likely noticed that even a short 5-10 minute snooze is enough to throw your child off their sleep schedule. What’s happening here is your child has relieved the sleep pressure they were accumulating between sleep periods. Biologically speaking, sleep pressure refers to a baby’s natural sleep drive that extends as wake time increases. If a child falls asleep too early, they miss the opportunity to build up an adequate amount of sleep pressure to sustain a long nap. This is the reason most accidental car naps are short, and you end up with a grumpy little one on your hands later on in the day.

What Should You Do When Your Child Falls Asleep in the Car?

If you’re able to catch your little one right as they are drifting off (and you are driving safely), try keeping them awake! Roll down your windows, turn up the music, or sing and talk to them. Dare we say consider offering a tablet or phone to keep them stimulated until you make it to your destination. If humanly possible, holding off a mediocre car nap is best.

We know how hard preventing these pesky car naps can be. If you peek in the rearview mirror and you suddenly notice your little one is fast asleep in their car seat, rather than waking them, let them sleep! Chances are, they have already entered into a sleep cycle and you might as well allow them to get as much sleep as they can since they are unlikely to fall asleep at their normal nap time. A 30-45+ minute car nap is preferable to a 10 minute car nap. Since both are enough to reset sleep pressure and prevent a proper nap from happening anytime soon, it’s best to let them sleep as long as possible.

If your baby is around 4 months or younger, you may be able to successfully transfer them from the car seat to their crib once you arrive at your destination. It’s much harder to transfer a sleeping child over the age of 4 months, so we recommend continuing to drive around while they snooze, or parking in a safe place and remaining in the car until they wake.

How To Adjust Sleep After a Car Nap

If your little one takes an accidental car nap longer than 15 minutes, you will likely need to wait a full wake window before putting them down again. If the nap is a quick snooze under 15 minutes, wait about 75% of their next wake window to put them down. For example, if they typically go down for their nap every 2 hours but they fell asleep for 10 minutes in the car between naps, wait 90 minutes before putting them down for another nap. The science is not exact here, but if you put them down for their next sleep period too early, they are likely to struggle to fall asleep and may protest for quite awhile before finally being able to nod off.

How to Plan for Car Naps

Planning ahead is essential to making sure car naps don’t throw you off schedule.

The most sure way of avoiding accidental car naps all together is to avoid driving within 1-2 hours of nap time, especially if your little one loves that constant motion! For most parents, the ideal time to take a drive is directly following a nap. By doing that you can almost be sure your child will be able to stay awake during the drive.

If you know in advance you’ll be driving during nap time, great! Plan to hop in the car near the end of their wake If you know in advance you’ll be driving during nap time, great! Plan to hop in the car near the end of their wake window so they’ve had enough time to accumulate optimal sleep pressure to sustain a longer nap. If you have to jump in the car early, have someone sit in the back seat to keep them awake through the end of their wake window for the highest chance of a long nap. If you’re riding solo, bring along a snack with some natural sugar to keep them alert. Rolling the windows down and music up will also do the trick of keeping them awake long enough to make it through the window.

If your little one typically sleeps with a pacifier and you’re worried about them falling asleep in the car, avoid offering the paci in the car within 90 minutes of nap time. A child who has any of their sleep associations in the car (lovies, pacifiers, even a bottle) can be risky if you are trying to avoid an inadvertent car snooze.

Always Be Aware of Safe Sleep

Finally, safety awareness around carseats and sleep is very important. The American American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends children sleep on a firm, flat mattress void of any toys, blankets, or other items that may be choking hazards. However, they do make an exception for sleep in car seats while the car is in use. Babies that nap in a car seat are safe when the seat is used properly and meets the approved safety standards, and the child is attended to. For detailed car seat safety information, check out the latest guidelines published by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). It is not safe to leave a child asleep in their car seat unattended or overnight.

Remember, Tomorrow is Another Day

Accidental car naps are never a parent’s favorite, but if you “mess up” your baby’s sleep schedule one day, remember that you’ll always have a chance to get back on track tomorrow!

For more information on preventing short naps, head over to this blog post.

Is it okay to leave kids alone in cars?

We’ve all been there — you need to pay at the petrol station but you have a carful of kids, you want to quickly duck into a shop for a last-minute grocery item and wish you didn’t have to drag the children with you, your little one has fallen asleep in their car seat and you really don’t want to disturb them, or you have older, responsible kids who would rather stay put than come with you.

So what do you do? Do you leave the kids unattended in the car? Is it ever okay to do so? We want to stress that there are grey areas. That safety should always be the number one priority. Even if the law permits something DOES NOT mean that it’s right for you or your circumstances.

The laws relating to leaving children unattended in cars

Since there are so many factors and variables that can affect whether it is safe to leave children alone in a car, there is no law in Queensland that states a specific time or age limit for doing this. However, leaving children unattended in cars is covered by several areas of legislation. (For all Queensland legislation, you can view the full Criminal Code Act here. For other states, territories and countries, please be sure to check your local laws as these can and do vary.)

The main law in Queensland relating to leaving children unattended is as follows:

Leaving a child under 12 unattended (1) A person who, having the lawful care or charge of a child under 12 years, leaves the child for an unreasonable time without making reasonable provision for the supervision and care of the child during that time commits a misdemeanour. Maximum penalty—3 years imprisonment. (2) Whether the time is unreasonable depends on all the relevant circumstances. [Section 364A, Criminal Code Act 1899]

While some scenarios would clearly be against this law, there could also be some grey areas in which parents may wish to consider many factors, such as:

  • How old is the child?
  • Is the car in a safe place?
  • How long will you be out of the car?
  • How far will you be from the car?
  • Will the car remain in view?
  • Is there a chance the car could get hot? (Read on to find out about how this is more likely than one might expect.)

However, with so many variables to consider, the safest option will always be to never leave children unsupervised in a car.

Moreover, there are some situations in which it is clearly and unequivocally a SERIOUS CRIME to leave children alone in cars, and that is when the child’s health and safety could be at risk.

The legislation relating to the protection of children includes:

Duty of person who has care of child (1) It is the duty of every person who has care of a child under 16 years to— (a) provide the necessaries of life for the child; and (b) take the precautions that are reasonable in all the circumstances to avoid danger to the child’s life, health or safety; and (c) take the action that is reasonable in all the circumstances to remove the child from any such danger; and he or she is held to have caused any consequences that result to the life and health of the child because of any omission to perform that duty, whether the child is helpless or not. [Section 286, Criminal Code Act 1899]

And the following:

Endangering life of children by exposure Any person who unlawfully abandons or exposes a child under the age of 7 years, whereby the life of such child is or is likely to be endangered, or the child’s health is or is likely to be permanently injured, commits a crime. Maximum penalty—7 years imprisonment. [Section 326, Criminal Code Act 1899]

child in car

Leaving kids in hot cars

One situation in which a child’s health and safety would be at risk is clearly leaving them in a hot car.

The Temperature in Cars Survey carried out by the RACQ made several important findings that show the dangers of leaving children unattended in cars, even for a short time.

They conducted a variety of tests on temperatures inside parked cars and concluded that ‘there is no safe situation in which to leave children unattended in a vehicle’. (The complete details of the RACQ Temperature in Cars Survey can be found here.) Here is a summary of their main findings:

  • In EVERY situation, the interior temperature of the car peaked at a level far in excess of what is considered safe for a child, WITHIN MINUTES.
  • It took as little as ONE TO TWO MINUTES to rise from air-conditioned levels to ambient and as little as seven minutes to reach 40 degrees. In the opinion of Medical experts, temperatures exceeding 40 degrees can lead to death or serious injury.
  • On a typical Brisbane summer day of 32.5 degrees, the temperature in the car reached 75.1 DEGREES.
  • Factors such as whether the vehicle was light or dark in colour, had tinted windows or a sunshade varied the peak temperatures by ONLY A FEW DEGREES.
  • Leaving the windows slightly open DID NOT reduce the temperatures by any significant amount.
  • Even cars parked in the shade, reached interior temperatures exceeding 40 degrees.

What to do if a child is accidentally locked in a car

If a child is accidentally locked in a car, you must act quickly.

  • Call the RACQ on 13 1111 immediately for roadside assistance.

What about our furry kids?

Don’t forget that animals die in hot cars too. Leaving an animal without appropriate water and shelter is an offence under the Animal Care and Protection Act 2001 and can be prosecuted. Visit the RSPCA Queensland website for a full explanation of the Dos and Don’t regarding leaving animals in cars.

If you see an animal left in distress in an unattended car, the RSPCA recommends seeking emergency help without delay. In a car park, they suggest notifying centre management immediately and phoning one of the following:

  • The RSPCA Animal Cruelty Hotline on 1300 852 188
  • The DPI Call Centre on 13 25 23
  • Or your local police station

For more information on leaving children unattended, check out our article When is it okay to leave kids home alone?

About the Author
Ngaire Stirling

Owner and Founder of Brisbane Kids, Ngaire grew up in Brisbane and lives with her husband, 3 kids and many animals. She has marketing and teaching qualifications and spends her spare time growing vegetables and advocating for wildlife including koalas. She loves long summer days, bright starry nights and working on Brisbane Kids.

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One response to “Is it okay to leave kids alone in cars?”

Terri Eather says:

It only takes 37 SECONDS to steal a car (with or without a baby or child in it). Paying for fuel or anything else takes longer than that. West Australia has a $36,000 fine for leaving a child in a car. Shame Mother’s refuse to think outside the box with child safety & leaving in cars. Go alone to the Petrol Station (to get some items at a shop ect) when someone can watch the children, spouse, neighbour, Grandparent, friend. NEVER EVER leave a child in a car for even a SINGLE minute. There is NEVER a GOOD enough EXCUSE to leave a child in a car alone or with siblings. I have had the
JOY” of being a first responder to a stolen car that had a dead (from heat) baby in it.

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