Question: What kind of person could ever forget their child in the car?
Answer: Me. You. Anyone.
Already this year, 27 children have perished in hots cars, which is one more than died in all of last year. On average, there are 37 hot car deaths in the US per year. We usually only hear about the fatalities, or some of the very near misses. Many, many more times through fortunate circumstances or some last minute reminder, children are forgotten but recovered quickly and unharmed.
Every time one of these heartbreaking stories hits the news, the comments are overwhelmingly angry and accusatory, along the lines of:
Someone should lock them in the car on a hot summer day!
Forgot? Yeah right! I bet they just wanted to get rid of the child.
I bet they didn't forget their cell phone.
Of course, such tragic loss comes as a shock to any parent. We all want to think WE could never do such a thing. By condemning the "guilty," we tell ourselves that great parents such as ourselves could NEVER forget their baby in a car.
But the truth is, anyone is capable of forgetting their child in a car. Doctors, lawyers, and a rocket scientist have all made the same fatal mistake that the Wal-Mart employee made in Texas yesterday. Moms and dads, rich and poor, old and young of every race are equally likely to forget their child, because it has nothing to do with our parenting, but all to do with the human brain.
Our brains are designed to operate largely by habit. By not having to waste much thought on familiar processes, our brains are freed up to respond more efficiently to unfamiliar issues that arise. This habit loop is a crucial aspect of how our brains work and process data without burning out. The part of the brain responsible for recall ("I have the baby with me today") is switched off, while we operate on the part of the brain that runs on habit (like a typical commute).
For instance, the first time you back out of your driveway in a new vehicle, it will take all of your concentration and focus. By the time you have done it for months, you never even give it a single thought. Your habit loop takes over the minute you start the engine, and you can back out of the driveway and go clear across town on a familiar drive (such as a commute) without having any recollection of it or any of the details surrounding it. This is the same reason why you might ask your husband to stop at the store on the way home from work, and he completely forgets until he walks in the front door and is reminded the moment he sees you. He knew he wanted to stop at the store, but habit took over and he followed his usual routine.
Tragedy strikes when there is a perfect storm - a change in routine (such as Dad taking the baby when he doesn't usually do so), while there are other stress factors that occupy the active part of his brain (an important business call, stress at work, etc.), and all reminders fall through. He KNOWS that he is supposed to drop the baby off at day care that day because mom can't do it, but the minute he sits down in the driver seat, his brain goes on autopilot. Unless the baby cries or in some other way reminds him that she is there, he might forget about her, and tragedy ensues.
I have personally known and heard of great parents who have forgotten their child in a car briefly and thankfully without suffering harm. It seems that almost every time I talk about this topic with parents, they suddenly recall a time they almost forgot their child in the car. It has nothing to do with what kind of a parent they are. It's simply a terrible error stemming from the way the human brain works. An attitude of "That could never happen to me!" is a very dangerous one to have.
To be forewarned is to be forearmed. Some safety protocols that help prevent a tragedy are:
- Make a habit of visually checking every car seat, every time before closing the car doors.
- Teach your older children to make a habit of checking for siblings in their rows before exiting the vehicle. Teach them to be extra vigilant when they are in the care of someone besides their main care giver.
- When traveling with just a baby, leave your purse/briefcase in the back by their car seat, and leave an item of the baby (like a blanket) in the spot you normally keep your purse. When you get to where you are going, this will jog your memory if necessary. It is not recommended to have a permanent reminder up front near the driver, such as a decal hanging from the mirror, because it will soon become so familiar that it will become part of the habit to see it, making it ineffective.
- If your child goes to daycare, have a plan that they call you if your child does not show up on a day that they are expected.
- Don't be afraid to call/text and check in with any non-regular care giver.
Some other excellent resources are Kids and Cars and http://noheatstroke.org/. Their websites have a lot of great information and helpful articles. If you like their Facebook page, you will get plenty of reminders in your newsfeed to keep the safety of children around cars at the forefront of your mind. This article has some insightful stats. The book "The Power of Habit" has a whole chapter dedicated to this topic, and explains the underlying science well. It is a great read, I highly recommend it!
Parents whose children died in a hot car already have their lives destroyed by guilt. Let's not compound it, and let's not fool ourselves into thinking it could never happen to us. I doubt there is a parent who could honestly claim that in all their years of raising a child, there was never a situation that could have turned out far worse if it were not for the grace of God. Remember: There but for the grace of God go I (and you).