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.
pigphoto via Getty Images
These are preventable deaths. But the first step towards stopping them is accepting the possibility.

Every summer, there are news stories about the deaths of children left behind in hot cars. In 2019, Juan Rodriguez, a New York social worker, dropped his 4-year-old at day care and went to work at a hospital, leaving his year-old twins behind in the back of the car. They died from heatstroke.

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

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

Between 1998 and 2021, at least 887 children in the U.S. 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 June, a 9-month-old boy died after being left in a hot car in Pace, Florida. As of June 23, four children in the U.S. had been reported dead by pediatric vehicular heatstroke this year, Null reports. In 2020, there were 25.

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. “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 showing that under stress, our brains can forget the people who matter most to us. 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 are 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 twins.

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 ― dropping off one child at day care but not the others ― is not a unique story. The typical pattern in these cases is that a parent has consistently driven that older child to day care, maybe for years. It’s become a habit, Null said, and a new baby or babies breaks that old pattern. Taking the younger children to day care is now in competition with the older habit.

“The habit system gets engaged, so that after you’ve taken the first child to day care, 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 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 Prevention 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.

Some parents may believe that talking with your kids should be enough to remind you of their presence, but Diamond points out they wouldn’t be 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 day care,” he said.

There Are Outside Technology And Reminders Available

There are, of course, reminders you can use to make sure this doesn’t happen to you. You should set up a system with your day care to contact you if your child is not dropped off on time, Diamond said.

There is also technology. Some car models have built-in reminders that can alert the driver to check the back seat.

The Hot Cars Act of 2021 was reintroduced in the House of Representatives this May and would require all new cars to have technology that would alert drivers of a person in the back seat if the engine is turned off.

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

The easiest no-tech solution to remind yourself children are 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.”

He recommends always having a unique object, like a diaper bag or stuffed animal or toy in view to remind you of your child’s presence. Make it “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 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.“

“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,” Diamond said. “It’s easy to judge, much tougher but important to understand how it happens.”

This story was updated to reflect 2021 statistics and the latest version of the Hot Cars Act.

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