Is it illegal to leave your child alone in a car?

It’s a thought that will have crossed the mind of many parents with a child in the car – can I just leave them there while I nip into the shop?

Often with a child asleep in the back it’s easier to leave them in peace while you go to pay for fuel or grab some groceries. But it’s a topic of much debate among modern parents around both its legality and whether it’s sensible or safe to do so.

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So what does the law say?

According to the Government’s official website, there is no specific law against leaving your child unattended in a car and there is no legal age at which you can or cannot leave you child alone.

However, it is an offence to leave your child alone if it places them at risk and you could be prosecuted.

That phrase “at risk” is very open to interpretation and parents have been prosecuted when they and police have had different views of what it means.

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The Government advises parents to make a judgement on the risk based on the situation and their own child’s maturity. It also highlights advice from the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC), which says babies, toddlers and very young children should never be left alone and children under 12 are rarely mature enough to be left alone for a long period of time.

Own decision

A spokesperson for the NSPCC told us that leaving young children alone does carry risks.

They advised: “When left alone in a vehicle, young children can very quickly start to get anxious and distressed.

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“Even if they’re sleeping peacefully when you leave they could well wake up and get very upset when you’re not there to look after them. They would not be able to protect themselves in an emergency and may even try to leave the vehicle to find you.

“As children become older, parents need to exercise their own judgement about whether they can be briefly left in a car. If they can see the vehicle the whole time it may be okay, depending on your child’s maturity. However, every child is different and every parent needs to make their own decision on whether their child is ready to be left in this scenario.”

So there are no definitive rules on leaving your child in the car by themselves but there are certain things you can consider before making the decision.

  • The age of the child – Some older children might sit happily while younger ones could become distressed or come looking for you
  • How long you’ll be away – nipping in to pay for petrol is different to doing the weekly shop
  • Whether you can see the car at all times – Being able to keep an eye on the car and kids means you can see if they’re upset/messing around
  • Is it particularly hot/cold outside? In hot weather the temperature inside a stationary car can soar 10 degrees in 10 minutes, reaching dangerous levels
  • Where the car is parked – is the car safely parked or exposed to potential impacts from other vehicles?
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