It’s that time of year again. The heat waves, days at the pool or beach, and a steamy hot car. We’ve all been there. Your car has been out in the sun for hours and you first get inside. Your sunglasses steam up and the steering wheel burns your hands. Wow, it’s hot in there!
Now imagine that when you open the car door, you realize your child had been in the backseat.
Yes. It’s almost unimaginable. It’s horrifying. And yet it happens. Sometimes it’s semi-intentional … mom or dad figures little Tommy is sleeping and he/she just needs a couple things. So I’ll run into the store alone. I won’t be long. Then mom or dad runs into an old friend or is stuck in a particularly long line. A ‘few minutes’ grows longer and Tommy is in danger.
Sometimes, though rarely, it’s a crime … a parent intentionally leaves a child to die for whatever horrible reason.
But most often, it is simply a horrific, tragic accident. A rushed mom or dad, who isn’t the usual daycare drop-off parent, drives straight to work forgetting Tommy is in the back because he’s quiet. And mom or dad only realizes the mistake when he/she approaches the car at the end of the workday.
What?! How can you forget your child? A cell phone, your lunch, paperwork … yes. But your child??
We’ve all said this. We try not to judge; but in our minds, we are thinking the same thing, “How can a parent not remember his or her child is in the car? I could never do that.”
But you could. Anyone can. It’s all in your mind.
Have you ever started driving to work and suddenly realize you arrived and have hardly a recollection of the actual movements of getting there? You’ve done it so many times, it’s a ‘habit’ and as if you’re on autopilot. You no longer have to think, “I need to make a left here, a right there.” According to memory expert David Diamond, Ph.D., there are scientific, biological explanations for this.
There are separate areas of the brain that are for short-term memory (hippocampus), for thinking/analyzing information (prefrontal cortex), and for voluntary but barely conscious actions (basal ganglia)—like driving to work every day. These areas typically work in harmony with each other but experts say outside forces, such as stress, can throw a proverbial wrench into the operation.
Stress can weaken the areas of the brain responsible for immediate memory and analyzing, which then allows the basal ganglia to essentially take control. So if you’re a parent who is suddenly the one taking Tommy to daycare in the morning, which is out of routine for you, and you are sleep-deprived and stressed and have a million things on your mind (like every parent out there, ever!), you put Tommy in the car and set off to daycare, but your mind is going through the day’s ‘To Do’ list and Tommy is quiet. Now, as you’re driving, the part of your brain responsible for getting you from point A to point B takes over and follows its normal routine—home to work. You’ve forgotten all about daycare. Or more likely, you arrive at work thinking you actually did drop Tommy off at daycare.
The medical explanation for how a parent can walk away from a car without realizing their child is inside is called Forgotten Baby Syndrome. Diamond, who is an expert in cognitive and neural sciences at the University of South Florida, says it’s a form of memory lapse involving the portions of the brain that store new information and help plan for the future.
“It is the hippocampus that processes that a child is in the car, while the prefrontal cortex enables a parent to plan the route, including a change in plans to go to daycare rather than straight to work,” says Diamond.
It’s not an excuse. But it is an explanation of how the unthinkable can happen. And it is a reason to set into habit a different routine … one that ensures Tommy’s safety every day, especially when stress levels are high.
Experts suggest you get in the habit of always, always opening the back door of your car after leaving your vehicle. This tip has actually morphed into a campaign from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), called “Look Before You Lock,” which was created to ensure a child is never left behind.
Here are some additional tips to keep your ‘Tommy’ safe:
- Create a reminder to check the back seat. Always put the items you will need like your cell phone, handbag, employee ID or brief case, etc., in the back seat so that you have to open the back door to retrieve that item every time you park. Do not let yourself simply reach around and grab it from the driver’s seat. You must get out and open the back door.
- Keep a large stuffed animal in the child’s car seat. When the child is placed in the car seat, put the stuffed animal in the front passenger seat. It’s a visual reminder that the child is in the back seat.
- Always place the car seat on the passenger side of the vehicle, not behind the driver. It is easier to see and remember the child.
- Be especially careful during busy times, schedule changes and periods of crisis or holidays. This is when many tragedies occur. There are apps you can download and gadgets you can buy that will also signal a reminder. But you don’t want to become reliant on those technologies.
- Keep a note posted to your computer at work, “Did you drop Tommy off at daycare this morning?” or “What did [caregiver’s name] say before you left Tommy at daycare today?” This might trigger a reminder that you never saw the caregiver this morning.
- If someone else is driving your child, or your daily routine has been altered, always check to make sure your child has arrived safely. Make sure that your daycare or caregiver is someone who will contact you if your child is expected but doesn’t arrive. If schools can follow up on truant children, so can your daycare.
Additionally … children can also find their way into unlocked parked cars on the street. So always, always lock your car doors. You should do this not only to protect your car and any valuables inside of it from theft, but also from a child (maybe not even your own) finding his/her way into your car and accidentally locking the doors.
Sources: NHTSA, kidsandcars.org, parents.com
Fatal Distraction: Forgetting a Child in the Backseat of a Car Is a Horrifying Mistake. Is It a Crime?
Yes, You Could Forget Your Kid in the Car—I Did