Let's Not Let Any More Babies Die in Hot Cars

It's (finally) spring, and some parts of the country and world are starting to warm up quickly. With the sun coming out come the reminders about the dangers of leaving kids (and pets) in the car. Cars warm up very quickly in direct sunlight, even when the temperature is fairly mild, and a child or animal trapped in a hot car can suffer dehydration, heat stroke, hyperthermia, and even death if left long enough.

Every year in the U.S., more than 30 children die from being left in hot cars. Most of these incidents are unintentional. That is, the parent or caregiver didn't mean to leave the baby in the car. Rather, they forgot the child was there and only upon returning to the car discovered that they had made a tragic error.

When news of such horrendous events gets out, two responses typically emerge. The comments start off with some type of judgment against the parent, such as, "He must be an abusive parent" or "She was obviously neglectful," or "If she can't remember her kids, she probably shouldn't have them." It is assumed that a parent who would leave a child in the car long enough to die in the hot sun must by definition be a "bad" parent. Next, you'll find a series of sanctimonious declarations that, "My children are always the first thing on my mind. would never do that" and "How could anyoneforget their kids? That would never happen to me!"

Five years ago, Gene Weingarten wrote a Pulitzer Prize-winning piece for the Washington Post on this subject. He tells the terrible stories of parents from all walks of life who returned to their cars to find their babies dead in their car seats. Some forgot they were supposed to drop the baby off at daycare and continued on to work. Some thought they had made the drop off only to show up at daycare for pickup with the child still in the back seat of the car. Every year, there are dozens of stories like this.

Weingarten interviewed a memory expert who explains that, "...in situations involving familiar, routine motor skills, the human animal presses the basal ganglia into service as a sort of auxiliary autopilot. When our prefrontal cortex and hippocampus are planning our day on the way to work, the ignorant but efficient basal ganglia is operating the car; that's why you'll sometimes find yourself having driven from point A to point B without a clear recollection of the route you took, the turns you made or the scenery you saw." 

In other words, when we're preoccupied with other things, we go on autopilot for the routine things. I'm sure we've all had the experience of getting in the car and starting to drive to work when we really meant to go the opposite direction to the grocery store, or of setting the table for the usual four people when only three are home that night, and so on. We do things without thinking about them while our conscious mind is busy with something else, like planning the meal we're about to make or thinking about tomorrow's schedule or making a phone call.

Weingarten's expert explains that when we are stressed, "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, you know, if the wife mentions the child in the back -- it can entirely disappear." 

So something that is not routine - like the fourth person not being home for dinner, or not going to work on a weekday - can be easily forgotten by the conscious memory if it's not reinforced, and the autopilot takes over.

The article is wonderful, for its excellent writing (as anyone would expect from Gene Weingarten), its sensitive handling of a delicate subject, and its exploration of how and why these tragedies happen. It is not, as Weingarten point out, because the parents are "bad" or "neglectful." It's not because they don't love their children. There's usually a perfect storm of stress, preoccupation, distraction, and change of routine that leads to a parent doing the unimaginable and leaving their child to die in the car.

We, the public, of course, hear about this happening when a child dies, but I wonder how often it happens that the child is forgotten but found and rescued before overheating, or that the baby is discovered or remembered by the parent before anything terrible happens. How often does it happen on a cold, cloudy day where the child might be hungry and upset but thankfully not overheat? How many times have parents left for just a few minutes before something reminds them to go back to the car and get the baby? I'm sure it's not as uncommon as we'd hope.

The trouble with the assumption that only neglectful, abusive, unloving parents would forget their baby in the car is that it means that those of us who know we are good, loving, attentive parents may not take precautionary measures. After all, if it's not going to happen, why bother worrying about it? The problem with knowing it wouldn't happen to us means that we are just as susceptible.

But what can we do to prevent it?

It's important to remember that these "forgetting" incidents usually happen when we are doing something outside our normal routine. If Mom usually takes the baby to daycare but today Dad is doing it, Dad's routine is disrupted. If Mom doesn't usually take the baby to the store with her but today she does, then Mom's routine is disrupted. If there is usually a baby-sitter at home but today the baby was going to Grandma's house, then the parents' routine is disrupted by dropping the baby off somewhere instead of going straight to work. Also, the typical scenario seems to be that not only is the routine disrupted, but that there are additional distractions, especially stress, that prevent the hippocampus from recording the memory that the baby is in the car. 


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