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It Could Happen to You-Forgotten Baby Syndrome

David Mittleman

In the United States, 15-25 babies will be forgotten in a car this year. Many parents think that it would never happen to them. However, studies show that it happens regardless of age, sex, ethnicity, class, or education. It happens to the most meticulous of people and the most absent-minded. Two decades ago, it was relatively unheard of. But in the early 1990’s, car-safety experts declared that passenger-side front airbags could kill children, and recommended that child seats be moved to the back of the car. Then, for even more added protection, experts suggested parents pivot baby seats towards the rear. The lessened visibility leads to children being out of sight and out of mind.

Our brain works in three very important ways. The prefrontal cortex allows us to think and analyze, the hippocampus allows us to hold onto our immediate memories, and the basal ganglia controls voluntary but barely conscious actions. Experts say that when we engage in situations that are fairly familiar, our basal ganglia kicks in and we begin to operate on auto-pilot. “So when you get from point A to point B and can’t remember how you got there, that is your brain’s basal ganglia at work. When we are hit with sudden stressful situations, the brain’s higher-functioning centers–the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus–are more susceptible to bullying from the basal ganglia.”

That is why experts say forgotten baby syndrome occurs irrespective of prior parental care, but rather by a combination of stress, emotion, lack of sleep and change of routine, where the basal ganglia is trying to do what it’s supposed to do, and the conscious mind is too weakened to resist. “What happens is that the memory circuits, in a vulnerable hippocampus, literally get overwritten, like with a computer program.” Unless the memory circuit is rebooted–such as if the child cries, or if the other spouse mentions the child in the back–the memory can entirely disappear. When you see how the brain operates, it becomes a little more clear how parents can forget a child in the back seat of their car.

For example, Miles Harrison, 49, was a diligent businessman and a doting, conscientious father, until one day last summer–beset by problems at work, making call after call on his cell phone–he forgot to drop his son off at daycare. Instead, he went into work like he always does, for nine hours, while his son, slowly died in his car seat. He was acquitted of manslaughter when the judge failed to find intent.

Similarly, Mark Warschauer, a professor at the University of California Irvine, was returning from lunch when he noticed a crowd of people in the parking lot outside of his office. It wasn’t until that moment that he realized he had forgotten to drop his 10-month-old son, Mikey, off at daycare that morning.

Raelyn Balfour, a 37-year-old army reservist had forgotten her son Bryce in a parking lot, after she had been up late the night before babysitting for a friend. Her son was ill with a cold and fell asleep in the car, so he made no noise. She was distracted by phone calls with a young relative in trouble and her boss about a crisis at work. She was acquitted of second-degree murder, when her attorney played a 911 call from a passer-by just a few second after Balfour discovered her son’s body, where you can hear her screaming “oh, my god, nooo!”, “no, no, please no!”. Balfour had no idea what she had done, until that moment. She now works with a group called Kids and Cars, telling her story repeatedly to try and prevent further accidents.

Just last week, in Portugal, a 35-year-old father left his son napping in the car as he rushed to a morning meeting. After three hours in the morning sun, his nine-month old son died from a heart attack.

More and more stories are told every day, so what can you do to keep your infant safe and prevent this from happening to you?

  • Always keep something you need for work in the back of the car, near the car seat
  • Use a visual reminder–such as keeping a teddy bear in the front of the seat of the car when your child is in the back seat
  • Make arrangements with your child’s daycare provider–always call when your child will not be at daycare and have them call you if your child does not arrive when expected
  • Set reminders or alarms on your phone

Using a simple alarm or indicator can reboot your memory circuit and can save the life of your baby. Don’t let these stories happen to you.


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