It’s every parent’s worst nightmare.

Their sleeping child is left alone and forgotten about for hours in a hot car -- often with devastating results. 

Every nine days a child dies of vehicular heatstroke, and 2019 is shaping up to be a deadly year. Fifty-two children died in the United States last year, and that number is already at 19 fatalities in 2019. 

But sometimes, tragedies like these hit closer to home. In May 2019 a 16-month-old boy died in Burnaby after being left alone in a hot car for several hours. 

While there no official Canadian statistics, at least seven deaths have been attributed to vehicular heatstroke between 2003 and 2018.

Experts say complacency can become fatal – and it’s not neglect, but a memory failure that leads to these tragic incidents.

“This is clearly related to the competition between the different brain memory systems. We have powerful brain autopilot brain memory system and get us to do things automatically and it gets us to do things automatically and in that process we lose awareness of other things in our mind, including that there’s a child in the car,” said David Diamond, neurologist and Professor of Psychology at the University of South Florida. 

A study funded by General Motors of Canada revealed that on a 35 C degree day the temperature of a previously air-conditioned car can swelter to over 50 C degrees within 20 minutes. The temperature soared to over 65 C degrees within 40 minutes. 

“The temperature inside a closed vehicle can reach dangerously high levels in less than an hour. This is unsafe for children and small babies because their body temperature rises three to five times faster than adults and they are unable to efficiently regulate their body temperature,” said Emily Thomas, Consumer Reports car seat expert. 

Leaving the windows open won’t make a difference either. While July and August are typically the deadliest months, even mild temperatures can be fatal. 

“It all fits the same pattern - that memory gets suppressed temporarily and we lose awareness of the child is in the car,” said Diamond. 

Tragedies like this can happen to any parent – and experts recommend following a routine with small reminders. 

“We encourage parents to make a habit of everyday putting a laptop bag or a lunchbox in the back seat, even if your child is not with you. Doing this will force you to visit the backseat after every trip,” said Thomas. 

Another tip is to keep your cell phone, wallet or purse in the backseat, or you can keep a sippy cup or your child’s coat up front with you as a reminder. Also remember to keep car doors locked so children can’t gain access and teach your kids that a vehicle is not a safe place to play in.

“Some people go so far as to say put a shoe in the back seat… give yourself a cue so that when you get out of the car you have that reminder!” Diamond said. 

If you see a child left alone inside a hot car – especially if they look like they’re overheating and are in distress – call 911 immediately. 

Don’t forget to check the backseat before you leave your car. It could save a life.