That’s the gut response of most parents to reports every summer about deaths of infants and small children forgotten in hot cars.
But researchers studying “forgotten baby syndrome” warn: It could happen to anyone.
David Diamond, professor of psychology and molecular pharmacology and physiology at the University of Southern Florida, studies memory. Specifically, he’s interested in how a parent’s brain could allow them to forget a child in a car.
The good news is, these events are preventable. A few easy additions to your routine can make sure that your drive doesn’t end in tragedy.
When most people think about their memory, they think about retrospective memory. This is the ability to recall things that have happened — a person’s name or a phone number. It’s retrieving information that we’ve stored.
But there’s another type of memory, and it’s even more prone to forgetfulness, Diamond explains. If you’ve ever forgotten to stop to run an errand on your way somewhere, driven away with something on top of your car, or forgotten to do something that you fully planned and intended to do — and chances are, you have — then you’ve experienced the fickleness of what is called prospective memory.
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Prospective memory is engaged in your brain’s frontal cortex any time you’re thinking about doing something in the future. Information about these plans are then stored in the hippocampus. Often enough, we lose awareness of the plan.
Let’s say you promise to stop at the store later for some dinner rolls. It’s no problem, you say. It’s right on the way home.
Enter habit memory. Habit memory occurs in a different part of the brain, the basal ganglia. This is where memories are stored that allow someone to complete habitual tasks without much thought.
So regardless of whether you remember to stop for rolls, you will certainly remember the route home after work without “thinking about it,” meaning, without engaging your frontal cortex at all.
The catch here is that habit memory can suppress and completely overtake the prospective memory — regardless of the perceived importance of your plan.
Anyone who’s been chastised for not stopping to pick something up on the way home from work that they promised — again, say dinner rolls — knows how easy it is for habit memory to take over.
Many refer to these instances where habit memory takes over as “going on autopilot.”
Dinner rolls may seem like a callous analogy when children’s lives are at stake, but it’s an experience we’ve all had (if not rolls — any errand fits the bill), and the processes that happen in the brain are the same as when a child gets left in the car.
But a child is different
As ridiculous as it may sound that a loving, devoted, attentive parent could forget their own child, on average 37 babies and young children die each year after being forgotten in a hot car.
In case after case that has arisen over the past decade, the stories are frighteningly similar. Through a tragic alignment of otherwise banal events, a parent ends up at their destination — usually work for the day — without remembering their child is in the backseat.
Habit memory does not care how much more a parent cares about their child than these other errands. It simply brings them to their usual destination.
Along the way — and this could be mere seconds into the drive — the parent loses awareness of the plan to stop at day care. It doesn’t matter if they think about their child and their child’s well-being all day long. They don’t realize they missed a stop.
“Everybody has forgotten to execute a plan, we’re just almost always talking about an inanimate object,” explains Diamond. “People always say, ‘That’s all fine, but we’re talking about a child, a child is different, you have to have priority for your child,’ and I agree, we should never forget a child. But when it comes to brain functioning, we can’t tell the brain what to do. It does what it does.
“When you talk to these people, and find out what wonderful parents they are, you realize this is not coming from someone who is negligent. The forgetting of a child fits the same pattern of these other events.”
A routine disruption
Forgotten baby cases always have one common theme, Diamond says — a change; a disruption of routine.
Plenty of parents will say they drive their children to day care every day and have never forgotten to drop them off. Many will never even find themselves in a position to forget. When the drop-off routine itself is a habit, the child likely gets dropped off even when the parent is “running on autopilot.”
That’s not when it happens. Diamond explains that the classic forgotten baby case is one where the father always drives the child to day care. One day, the mother is taking the child, which is along her route to work. Habit memory takes over.
She drives to work.
But forgotten babies are not always a result of a second-string chauffeur not having built up the right habits. Something as simple as giving a ride to someone else could throw a person off: adding a new stop to the morning route could distract from a daycare stop; while adding a front-seat passenger could send the diaper bag from the front seat to the back — out of sight and out of mind.
A usually noisy baby could fall asleep during the ride. An important phone call could come in right as the car approaches — and subsequently passes by — the caregiver’s location.
Again, it doesn’t matter how much the parent is thinking about the child. But for one reason or another, the mother or father loses awareness of the plan to drop the child off. It doesn’t cross their mind, and they go about their day.
When we fail to execute our plan, Diamond says, that memory is not destroyed. It’s just suppressed. The plan is remembered once the error is revealed.
But to make matters worse, when people assume something happens, the brain can make it into a false memory.
What this means is that many of these parents go about their day thinking that they dropped off their child. They discover their critical error when they return to their car or try to pick up their child.
Once parents accept that this could happen to them, there are a few strategies that help reduce the odds of a catastrophe.
Leave a reminder visible
Backseat, rear-facing infant car seats look the same from a rear-view mirror when they’re vacant as when they’re occupied. Leaving a child’s diaper bag or other belongings in the front seat where they will be seen can snap you out of habit memory mode.
Likewise, you might put something of your baby’s on top of something you need for work, forcing yourself to see it when you start to unload.
Instead of bringing baby gear closer, leave items you need in the back — like a purse, employee badge, lunchbox or cellphone. This will force you to turn around when you reach your destination.
KidsandCars.org suggests keeping a large stuffed animal in a vacant car seat. Whenever a child gets in the seat, toss the animal up front, in view of the driver’s seat. KidsandCars.org is an advocacy group that raises awareness of safety issues around unattended children in and around motor vehicles.
Of course, these car tips need to become an integrated part of both parents’ habitual routine. Otherwise, forgetting to use your baby-reminder system will be just as likely as forgetting the baby.
“Be sympathetic and understanding”
For a forgotten baby tragedy to happen, explains Diamond, there essentially has to be a perfect storm where everything goes wrong. The time of year, the disruption of routine, sometimes even the exact parking spot.
But one thing it’s not, he says, is negligence.
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“It’s so easy to judge these parents harshly as being too busy with their lives to care for their children. People may say we’re making excuses for bad parenting. I try to emphasize to people this is part of being human. This is an error we make because we’re human, not because we’re negligent. So many people who had judged people harshly themselves became the victims of forgetting children in cars. I’d encourage people to be sympathetic and understanding.”