Think You'd Never Forget Your Kid in a Parked Car? Don't Be So Sure

Elise Solé
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It’s all too easy for parents to forget their kids in the car. (Photo: Getty Images)

By now, you’ve heard the heartbreaking news that an 18-month-old girl in Florida died in a car on Tuesday after her mother accidentally left her in the back seat for about eight hours.  

When teacher Jamie Buckley parked at Cedar Grove Elementary School in Panama City, where she works, she forgot that her daughter Reagan was in the back seat. The toddler was in the car from 7:15 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., and when Buckley returned to her vehicle, she discovered her lifeless child.  

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Whether or not you’re a parent, it may seem inconceivable to forget a child in a car, but it does happen despite a parent’s best intentions. In May, a Massachusetts father frantically called 911 after realizing that he had left his 1-year-old daughter in his parked car when he caught the train to work (fortunately the girl survived). In August, an 11-month-old girl in Utah died of hyperthermia after her mother forgot her in a 90-degree parked car. And in 2013, an 11-month-old girl in Alabama was left in a 127-degree parked SUV for almost four hours. The girl’s mother said she was distracted and stressed and didn’t realize her child was still in the back seat.

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How could a parent forget their child in a car? “It happens more often than you would think and to the most educated, caring parents,” Amber Rollins, director of Kidsandcars.org, a nonprofit safety organization, tells Yahoo Parenting. “These parents aren’t neglectful drug addicts — they’re usually good people.”

These incidents are typically referred to as “Forgotten Baby Syndrome” (FBS), and according to memory expert David Diamond, PhD., an expert in cognitive and neural sciences at the University of South Florida, it’s a form of memory lapse involving the portions of the brain that store new information and help plan for the future. “It is the hippocampus that processes that a child is in the car, while the prefrontal cortex enables a parent to plan the route, including a change in plans to go to daycare rather than straight to work,” Diamond wrote in an op-ed for HLN.

Parents are especially prone to this brain lapse when they’re sleep-deprived, distracted, juggling the demands of work and family, or have a shift in their daily routines. “Parents who forgot their kids also claim to have a clear but false memory of dropping their kids off at daycare,” says Rollins. 

The babies who are most vulnerable to FBS are those under the age of 3 who sit in rear-facing car seats. “Before the mid-1990s, babies rode in carseats in the front with their parents,” says Rollins. “But after many babies died from deployed airbags, there was a national outcry and parents were advised to place carseats in the back seat. That’s when heat deaths from babies forgotten in cars skyrocketed, almost overnight.”

Most notably, since a rear-facing car seat looks the same whether or not a child is sitting in it, there’s no visual cue for the parent.

Here are three common reasons kids die when left in parked cars:

Heatstroke: Every nine days, a child dies of heatstroke, which occurs when the body overheats as a result of exposure to 104-degree temperatures, damaging the brain, muscles, and heart. “A child’s body temperature rises three to five times faster than an adult’s because their regulatory systems haven’t fully developed,” says Rollins. “Cars also heat up quickly — 80 percent of the rise in heat occurs in the first 10 minutes.” In other words, a fatality can occur in the time it takes to dash inside the drugstore.

Strangulation: “Kids are curious and like to press buttons and pull levers,” says Rollins. Not only can they get dangerously tangled up in seat belts, power windows can cause strangulation by exerting 30 to 80 pounds of force. Note that it takes just 22 pounds of force to injure an infant.

Knocking cars into gear: According to Rollins, many parents wrongly assume their car can’t be shifted into gear unless the car is running. Parents can check whether their car is capable of moving without a foot on the break by taking this quick test.

However, parents can take safety precautions to avoid leaving a child in a car. “Leave a purse, shoe, or cell phone in the back seat — a necessity that you would definitely notice as you walk away,” says Rollins. And you can’t reach around to grab it — get out of the car to retrieve it.”

Another suggestion: Keep a stuffed animal in the car. When your baby is in the carseat, place the toy on the front passenger seat; when you remove the baby, put the animal in the carseat. This repetitive swap will indicate whether your baby is in the car. 

Make a deal with daycare that if your child doesn’t show up, to call you or a family member. “This may be a liability issue, however. I’ve spoken to daycare providers who regret not calling parents when a baby hasn’t shown up the day they were left in a car,” says Rollins.

Lastly, saying to yourself, ‘I would never forget my kids in the car’ is dangerous. “This mindset creates a false sense of security,” says Rollins. “It can happen to any parent.”  

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