How Can Someone Forget A Child in the Car?
–by Hannah Mann
“Only bad parents do that.”
“It can’t happen to me.”
“I could never forget my child in the car.”
Imagine this. Every morning, you drop your child off at daycare before going to work. Simple enough, right? You’ve done it so many times, the routine becomes second nature and your brain can default to auto-pilot. Grab keys, purse, and kid. Head out door. Strap in kid. Drive to daycare. Drop off kid. Drive to work.
Except, one day, something changes. Maybe you’ve had one too many restless nights in a row, or you’re distracted by a pressing issue at work, or you’re in the middle of a heated phone call with your spouse. That day, you just… drive past the daycare, straight to work. Just a momentary lapse: one blank, missed step before everything goes back to normal.
Because it’s still early morning and she’s sleeping in a rear-facing seat, you can’t see or hear her. You don’t even think to check; your brain has already mentally filled in that gap and moved on to something else. The daycare staff guess that she’s out sick, or maybe her parents just wanted to keep her home that day. They don’t think to call to confirm.
Maybe someone will realize the error in time. Maybe. She can have as little as 20 to 30 minutes before the car’s internal temperature hits critical levels. Her lower surface-to-mass ratio means her tiny body will overheat three to five times faster than an adult’s. If she’s found and cooled down in time, she can survive with no lasting effects. A little longer can mean organ damage, long-term cognitive impairment, and ultimately, death.
The ones who perish are the stories that hit the media channels and incur parental judgment. What most people don’t know about are the near-misses: hundreds of EMS rescues nationwide from hot cars that don’t result in tragedy.
Child car deaths aren’t necessarily due to abuse or neglect. Often, the parents have no history of drug or alcohol abuse. No arrest record. Conscientious workers and homemakers, many of them had set up additional safety nets– which, in several cases, had failed due to a combination of factors. Those factors? Usually stress, lack of sleep, change in routine, and heightened emotion– and who hasn’t experienced any of these with children?
It’s happened often enough that it has its own name and specialized research arena: Forgotten Baby Syndrome. As Dr. David Diamond explains in this acclaimed Washington Post article, forgetting a child in the car has nothing to do with love (or lack thereof) and everything to do with how your brain works. “Memory is a machine,” he says, “and it is not flawless. Our conscious mind prioritizes things by importance, but on a cellular level, our memory does not.”
Very Unscientific Explanation Alert: the brain can’t focus on everything at once. It’s not physically possible. Hence, a primitive part of the brain goes on autopilot with routine tasks so the higher-functioning parts can handle more pressing items like, say, planning out an impending deadline or handling a stressful phone call. Interrupt the routine, introduce a distraction, and something gets dropped without notice. Unfortunately, sometimes it’s the one thing in the world that you cherish the most.
That’s why the iRemind Alarm from Sunshine Baby was developed. Beverley and Marti McCurdy, a mother-daughter team, wanted to create a device that could be easily installed on a car seat and connected to an iPhone app. If the child is left unattended in the car, it’ll send an alert to your iPhone immediately.
Now, re-imagine the opening scenario: Grab keys, purse, and kid. Head out door. Strap in kid. Drive to daycare. Drop off kid. Drive to work.
Except, on that fateful day when you drive past the daycare, straight to work– you get out, you walk toward the door– and suddenly, your phone vibrates. You pull it out to see a screen with red warning buttons: “Occupied,” “Did you forget someone?” and “It’s getting hot in here!” A mixture of relief and dread floods into the pit of your stomach. Relief, because you caught your little one before it was too late. Dread, because it really can happen to anyone.
If you plan to be in Long Beach, California on April 3-5, swing by Sunshine Baby’s table at the Lifesavers National Conference on Highway Safety. Beverley and Marti will provide live demonstrations of the iRemind Alarm at booth 315.