MILWAUKEE — Parents say they would never, ever forget their child in a car on a hot day.
But David Diamond, a professor of psychology and molecular pharmacology and physiology at the University of Southern Florida who studies memory, warns it could happen to anyone.
“Everybody has forgotten to execute a plan. We're just almost always talking about an inanimate object," he said. "People always say, ‘That’s all fine, but we're talking about a child. ... You have to have priority for your child."
That's not exactly how your brain thinks about it, even if you want it to.
The good news: "Forgotten baby syndrome" is preventable, Diamond said. A few easy additions to your routine can make sure your drive doesn’t end in tragedy.
When most people think about memory, they think about retrospective memory. This is the ability to recall things that have happened — a person’s name or a phone number, information that we’ve stored.
But another type of memory is more prone to forgetfulness, Diamond said. 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 intended, you’ve experienced the fickleness of what is called prospective memory.
Let's say you promise to stop at the store later, on the way home, for some dinner rolls. Habit memory, which allows someone to complete habitual tasks without much thought, may thwart you.
Whether you remember to stop for rolls, you will remember your route home without thinking about it.
The catch here is that habit memory can suppress and completely overtake the prospective memory — even if you think your plan is important.
Dinner rolls may seem like a callous analogy when children’s lives are at stake, but we’ve all had a similar experience. The processes that happen in the brain are the same as when a child is left in the car.
On average, 37 babies and young children die each year after being forgotten in a hot car.
In case after case in the past decade, the stories are frighteningly similar. Through a tragic alignment of otherwise banal events, a parent ends up at the destination without remembering a child is in the backseat.
Along the way — and this could be mere seconds into the drive — the parent loses awareness of the plan to stop at day care. Mom doesn't realize she missed a stop.
"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," Diamond said. "The forgetting of a child fits the same pattern of these other events.”
A routine disruption
Forgotten-baby cases always have one common theme: a change, a disruption of routine, he said.
Plenty of parents will say they drive their children to day care every day and never have forgotten to drop them off. Many never will 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.
Instead, the classic forgotten-baby case happens when the father always drives the child to day care. One day, Mom has to, and the dropoff is along her route to work.
Habit memory takes over. She drives to work.
But forgotten babies are not always a result of a backup chauffeur without built-in habits.
Other simple distractions can throw a parent off:
- Giving someone else a ride.
- Adding a new stop to the morning route.
- Not hearing noises from a usually boisterous baby.
- Getting a phone call right as the car approaches — and then passes — the caregiver's house.
When a parent fails to execute the plan, that memory is not destroyed, Diamond said. It's just suppressed.
A person remembers once the error is revealed.
But to make matters worse, when people assume something happens, the brain can turn it into a false memory. That's why many of these parents go about their day thinking they had dropped off their child.
They discover their critical error when they return to their car in the afternoon.
Once parents accept that this could happen to them, a few strategies can help reduce the odds of a catastrophe.
Leave a reminder visible
Leave a child’s diaper bag or other belongings in the front seat where they will be seen to snap you out of habit-memory mode because backseat, rear-facing infant car seats look the same from a rear-view mirror when they're vacant as when they're occupied.
Likewise, leave items you need for work 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 integrated into both parents’ habitual routine. Otherwise, forgetting to use your baby-reminder system will be just as possible as forgetting the baby.
For a forgotten-baby tragedy to happen, everything has to go wrong, Diamond said. The time of year, the disruption of routine, sometimes even the exact parking spot play a role.
“It's so easy to judge these parents harshly as being too busy with their lives to care for their children," he said. "This is an error we make because we're human, not because we're negligent."
Follow Anna Groves on Twitter: @annamgroves