It happens every year, without fail, when the weather warms up. A parent forgets their baby in a hot car, the baby either survives or, tragically, dies. But either way, hoards of sanctimommies come slithering out from under their rocks to crucify the parent for being neglectful, stupid, and unfit.
“I could never forget my baby was in the car with me! I love my child too much to just forget about them!”
I hate to break it to these folks, but when it comes to forgetting a quiet child in the backseat, the only flaw required is being in possession of a human brain. This literally could happen to anyone. Science supports this.
David Diamond, Ph.D, professor of psychology at the University of South Florida, is a leading expert in cognitive neuroscience. He studies the role of memory in tragedies where parents forget a child in the backseat and has learned that one of the major triggers for memory lapses like this is stress — precisely the kind of stress that parents face on a daily basis.
Dr. Diamond says “forgotten baby syndrome” is not a problem of negligence. It’s a problem of memory. And he says it can happen to anyone. If you’re a human being, and you’re a parent or caregiver, this can happen to you. No matter how immune you think you are, you are at risk.
“The worst thing any parent or caregiver can ever do,” says Janette Fennell, founder and president of KidsAndCars.org, “is to think that something like this could never happen to them or someone in their family.” Because if you think your brain is too special to make human mistakes, you may not take the necessary precautions to prevent yourself from making those very mistakes.
In addition to the heat summer brings, which makes closed-up cars extra deadly, summer also brings about changes in daily routine. Parents are rushing to get themselves to work and kids to their various summer camps, and often they are squeezing in extra doctor and dentist appointments or various things that are harder to manage during the school year because it requires signing kids out and remembering to get a doctor’s note. Summer means constant shifts in routine, and that’s where the risk of memory lapses comes in.
Except, of course, the risk isn’t only during the summer. Last year, 52 children between the ages of 7 weeks and 11 years died in hot cars in the U.S., and the earliest death happened in February. In 2019, there have already been 13 deaths as of June 24. The main recurring factor in a parent or caregiver forgetting a child in the car is a disruption to the routine. This is because of how our brains are wired to help us get through our day. Every one of us operates in the same way, and so everyone of us is susceptible to the kind of memory lapse that causes someone to leave a baby locked in a car.
According to Dr. Diamond, we use two parts of our working memory to propel ourselves through our busy days: prospective and semantic. “Prospective memory helps us remember to do something in the future, while semantic allows drivers to make the trip from work to home on ‘autopilot,’ where they arrive without remembering clear details of how they got there.”
Who among us hasn’t pulled into our driveway with little to no memory of the drive itself? Have you ever arrived home and only then remembered you were supposed to stop at the pharmacy to pick up a prescription? Or on a day you had an early doctor’s appointment, almost accidentally driven to work because your hands tried to automatically steer you in that direction?
Prospective and semantic memories work in tandem to adjust to changes in routine. If prospective memory goes offline, as it often does when we’re distracted or stressed or exhausted — and what parent isn’t? — semantic memory throw us into autopilot. It may cause us to forget a critical extra step, such as the fact that today is our job to drop off the baby at daycare.
“The habit brain system is a great convenience that allows us to go into autopilot,” Diamond says. “The beauty of it is that we don’t have to remember every turn, but the problem is that it’s actually guiding our behavior. When it guides our behavior, it suppresses the other part of the brain that is supposed to remind us of additional information.”
Diamond points out that even the most careful, brilliant minds can fall prey to lapses in working memory. Surgeons have left tools in patients, pilots have neglected to set wing flaps for landing, and, of course, loving caregivers sometimes forget there is a baby in the car.
“We have to accept the fact that our brain multitasks,” Diamond says. “And as a part of that multitasking, the awareness of a child can be lost.”
This is just a normal part of being human. It has absolutely nothing to do with how much a parent loves their child or even how smart the parent is.
So what can parents do to mitigate this risk? First and foremost, parents and caregivers need to understand and accept that they are not immune. Human memory is faulty, period. With that in mind, we can employ strategies that help us avoid potential memory lapses.
– Use an agreement like Ray Ray’s Pledge, where parents and childcare providers have an agreement between them that requires the parent to notify the childcare provider in advance if the child is expected to show up late, and requires the childcare provider to notify the parent whenever the child isn’t dropped off at their usual time.
– Partners can set reminders on their phones whenever there is a switch-up in who is driving. And remember, this isn’t about blame or accusing your partner of being forgetful. This is about acknowledging that we’re human and all susceptible to lapses in memory.
– Place an obvious visual reminder, like an article of clothing for your child, or a diaper bag, in the front passenger seat.
– Force yourself to access the backseat by placing whatever items you carry with you every day in the backseat. This could be a habit regardless of whether your child is with you, so you build having to look into the backseat into your semantic memory.
Some carseats and vehicles have reminder technology built into them, like Evenflo SensorSafe or General Motors’ Rear Seat Reminder. Consumer reports advises that of these types of technologies, the most beneficial are the ones that automatically default to “on” and don’t need to be activated by the driver. This makes sense since parents are on autopilot so much, it would be too easy to forget to activate the feature.
And, finally, parents can contact lawmakers at congress.gov to express their support for the HOT CARS Act. Endorsed by Consumer Reports Advocacy, this bill would mandate that new cars come equipped with technology that alerts drivers if a child is left in the backseat after the ignition is turned off.
Because when no one is immune, we all have an interest in helping to prevent these tragedies.