So far this year, 19 babies and toddlers have died of heatstroke after being left in cars.
And that number will rise before this piece goes to print because the number of fatalities due to Forgotten Baby Syndrome (FBS) skyrockets in summer, when it sizzles.
The facts and figures are stark:
Total number of U.S. heatstroke deaths of children left in cars, 2016: 19
Total number of U.S. heatstroke deaths of children left in cars, 2015: 24
Total number of U.S. heatstroke deaths of children left in cars, 1998-present: 680
Average number of U.S. child heatstroke fatalities per year since 1998: 37
Even on a mild day in spring, the inside of a car can become unbearably hot for an infant or child. The temperature in a closed, parked car rises 20° in the first ten minutes, continuing to climb over time. Scientists find that cracking a window makes very little difference (<3 degrees).
“Memory is a machine,” said Diamond, “and it is not flawless. Our conscious mind prioritizes things by importance, but on a cellular level, our memory does not. If you’re capable of forgetting your cell phone, you are potentially capable of forgetting your child.”
What is executive functioning?
Dr. Diamond is talking about executive brain function. These functions allow us to plan trips, write papers, and do online research. Besides helping us plan and carry out daily activities, executive brain functions power working memory, our ability to reason, our flexibility in carrying out tasks, and problem-solving.
Getting to work on time, for instance, means getting to bed on time the night before; setting the alarm clock but leaving enough time to shower, eat, pack a lunch, and get dressed; remembering why the alarm is ringing when you awaken; choosing the best route to take considering time of day and the weather; and finding your car keys.
Executive functions are fairly automatic, but not as dependable as we’d wish. The brain has a built-in override that takes over executive brain function when we’re stressed out. That function is involuntary. In other words: beyond human control.
Getting to work on time.
Let’s say it’s your day to drop the baby off at daycare. As you drive to work, your working memory pings you to make the turn-off for day care. You’re well-rested, calm, and things are going great, so everything goes smoothly.
But then let’s say you’ve got an overdue work project, your boss has been complaining, hinting you’re not indispensable. Add to this bad weather conditions that make for poor visibility while driving. Now factor in sleep deprivation because the next-door neighbors had a loud party that went on until late, and then the baby was restless and teething the rest of the night. Finally, you had a spat with your partner at breakfast.
When so much is happening – sleep deprivation, strong emotions, and changes in routine – something happens inside your brain, something you can’t control. The memory circuits of your brain are overwritten, like highlighting text in a book.
Parents are human.
The conscious mind has no power to resist this short circuit to the working memory, this overwrite of executive brain function. It’s an involuntary brain response, completely unavoidable. It’s how the human brain was created. Even parents’ brains.
Because parents are human.
Take Mary and Jeff Parks, for instance. They were good parents with good jobs, a nice house, and two beautiful babies. But the kids were sick on and off over a period of weeks, and between wakeful nights, running to doctor appointments, and juggling work responsibilities, things got stressful.
Mary was driving to work when it happened. She meant to drop Juan off at daycare but Juan fell asleep, exhausted. He was quiet, and she was stressed, and her brain blanked out her working memory of his presence.
It was only when Mary went to pick Juan up at the end of the workday, and the caregiver looked surprised, that Mary realized and ran to her car, knowing it was too late. Juan was dead.
It’s what happened to Steven Lillie, who left his sleeping 9-month-old daughter behind in the pickup truck. Lillie, a police officer, held a high pressure job. He meant to drop his daughter off at daycare before work. But Lillie’s working memory failed him and as the baby had fallen asleep, there was no noise to remind him of her presence.
He remembered only hours later when a family member called and casually asked about the baby. Lillie rushed out to the car and found his daughter lifeless, in the backseat of the truck. It was the day after Father’s Day.
There are steps parents can take to prevent Forgotten Baby Syndrome. You can leave your purse or cell phone in the backseat of your car. This will prompt you to make eye contact with your baby or toddler in the backseat, even if the child is quietly asleep. Or you can download a free app to alert you to check the backseat of your car, such as the Kars4Kids Safety app. Kars4Kids Safety pairs with the bluetooth function of your car, alerting you to check the backseat of your car.
What kind of parent leaves her baby in the car? A good parent, a loving parent, a responsible parent, a human parent. Like you, like me, like any of us.