Parenting

What's Happening In Your Brain When You Forget Your Kid In The Car

“It’s easy to judge, much tougher but important to understand how it happens," a memory expert explains.
These are preventable deaths. But the first step towards stopping them is accepting the possibility. 
These are preventable deaths. But the first step towards stopping them is accepting the possibility. 

Every summer, there are a few news stories about the deaths of children left behind in hot cars. In July, Juan Rodriguez, a New York social worker, dropped off his 4-year-old and went to work at a hospital, leaving behind his year-old twins in the back of the car. They died from heatstroke.

“I blanked out,” Rodriguez later told the police about what had happened to his twin infants. “I killed my babies.” He told authorities he thought he had dropped the twins off at daycare, prosecutors said.

When you read about the nightmarish cases of parents leaving behind their children in cars, your challenge may be, “But I wouldn’t forget them.” But the hard reality is that each of us is susceptible to these memory lapses that can become fatal distractions.

Between 1998 and 2019, at least 829 children in the U.S. have died due to pediatric vehicular heatstroke, according to meteorologist Jan Null, who founded noheatstroke.org and compiles annual datasets cited by the National Safety Council and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Just this weekend, a young child in Knoxville, Tennessee, was found dead in the car in the parking lot of a grocery store, and a 2-year-old died inside a car in Lawrence, Kansas. As of Aug. 12, the total reported deaths of children by pediatric vehicular heatstroke deaths this year stands at 32, Null reports.

Heatstroke can set in when your body temperature reaches 104 degrees Fahrenheit (40 degrees Celsius), and that’s when your body’s cooling system shuts down. Inside a car, a regular summer day can turn lethal. “We’re looking at temperatures, after an hour, in excess of 40 degrees higher than the outside temperature,” Null said.

Children are especially vulnerable to the heat. “Especially infants and small children, their bodies heat up three to five times faster than yours or mine would,” he told HuffPost. “That couple degrees for us might be six-plus for a small infant or child.”

Although some children are knowingly left behind in cars, Null has found that in the majority of deaths for these circumstances, the caregiver forgot the child in the car. While it might be easy for some to dismiss these parents as negligent, there is actual psychological research to show that our brains can forget the people who matter most to us under stress. HuffPost spoke with two researchers to explain how easily our brains can forget and how to prevent yourself from doing the same.

Recognize That These Memory Failures Happen To Anyone

David Diamond is a professor of psychology at the University of South Florida who for the past 15 years has studied the psychology of why kids get unintentionally and unknowingly left in cars. He has talked with many parents who have left behind children in cars, including Rodriguez, the New York father of the twins.

In an interview with HuffPost, he explained how, in events like this, there’s a power struggle between our conscious memory and our subconscious taking place. “What we have is this autopilot system in our brain that permits us to multitask, it permits us to do things automatically, almost subconsciously, which means we can get to point A to point B, out of habit,” Diamond said. “And in the process of triggering this autopilot system, we lose awareness of a competing memory system, which is our conscious memory system.“

Diamond said Rodriguez’s case of dropping off one child at daycare but not the others is not a unique story. The pattern is that a parent has consistently driven that older child to daycare, maybe for years. It’s a habit now, Null said. A new baby or babies breaks that old pattern. Taking the younger children to daycare is in competition with the older habit.

“The habit system gets engaged, so that after you’ve taken the first child to daycare, the old habit gets engaged, and you go straight to work. And you lose awareness that you have a second child, twins, to take to a second location,” Diamond said.

Once you’re at work, no alarm bells may go off, because your brain goes into a different routine. “Every time you get to work, you’ve never had your child in a car ... Therefore your brain says, ‘You’re now alone. There’s no child in the car,’” Diamond said. “So the parent now has this artificially created memory that says, ‘Now you move on with your day.’”

Compounding this problem is the typical stress of being a caretaker of young children. “It’s a very stressful time in life and it’s a sleep-deprived time,” Diamond said. “Those two components make it much more likely that someone will do something out of habit and their conscious memory system then is impaired.”

The Best Tip Is To Not Deny That It Could Happen To You

Diamond’s top tip for caregivers is to accept that forgetting a child could happen to anyone.

“If we go in the store, we take a list of things we don’t want to forget, we write it down. If we have an appointment and we know we have to see the doctor in the afternoon, we will put that on the calendar, because we know that we could forget it,” Diamond said. “People are in denial, they will not make an effort to remind themselves that the child is in the car because that’s admitting that they could forget their child.”

When we become complacent, that’s when we’re vulnerable to making the catastrophic memory error of losing awareness of a child in a car, Diamond said.

While you could argue that parents should be talking with their kids while in the car to remind them of their presence, Diamond would argue that you’re not talking to a sleeping child. “If you’ve got a 3-month infant that is sleeping and facing the rear, so you don’t see it, you don’t hear it, you don’t smell it, you’re not going to talk to a 3-month old infant as you take them to daycare,” he said.

There Is Outside Technology And People Reminders You Can Use

There are, of course, reminders you can use. You should set up a system with your daycare to contact you if the child does not get dropped off on time, Diamond recommends. There is also technology available. Some car models have built-in reminders that can alert the driver to check the back seat.

The Hot Cars Act of 2019 that was introduced in the House of Representatives this July would require cars to have technology that would alert drivers of a person in the back seat if the engine is turned off.

But Null noted that technology alone will not solve the issue of children dying in hot cars, because it doesn’t entirely speak to the children who are knowingly left, and the children who gain access to a car. “Every life that gets saved is wonderful, but you don’t see a huge market penetration of these sorts of products, because people would say, ‘I would never forget my child.’”

Make A Habit Of Using A Visual Reminder Only When Kids Are In The Car

The easiest no-tech solution to remind yourself of children in the back of a car is to put an object in view to jog your memory. Diamond suggested using “a cue, whether it’s visual or auditory that triggers our conscious memory system, and that way, the autopilot system can’t suppress our conscious memory system.”

Diamond recommends always having a unique object, like a diaper bag or stuffed animal or toy of the child in view to remind you of their presence when they are with you in the car. “It’s unique to that drive. You don’t always have that toy in the car. You’ve always got that object there only when the child is there in the car seat.“

Choose Understanding Over Judgment

Above all, experts recommend choosing compassion and understanding over demonizing the parents who unknowingly leave their children behind. “I have a list of all the different people that it has happened to,” Null said. “It can happen to anybody.“

Diamond added, “This really is a time for compassion and empathy to try to understand how this has happened to hundreds of really good, wonderful and attentive parents, and they’re suffering because of this. It’s easy to judge, much tougher but important to understand how it happens.”