Do Parents Really Forget Their Babies in the Back Seat of the Car?

Kids die as a result, but experts claim yes.

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Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

“How do you forget your baby?” Stacey Holly was recorded on body cam saying to the officer who showed up on the scene this past June after she reported she’d “forgotten” her five-month-old daughter in the back seat of her car and then went into a Target to shop. The child remained locked inside the car for thirty minutes in one-hundred-degree weather until Holly finally remembered she had left her there. Who knows what would have happened to the baby had she stayed locked in the closed car on that hot day any longer. The baby survived, though a first responder admitted the infant was lucky.

I echo Holly’s question in my own mind. How do you forget your baby in your car? Because honestly, I don’t get it. Mind you, Holly didn’t go into the Target alone. She drove to the store with her sister and her six-year-old daughter, which meant someone was sitting in the back seat: the six-year-old. No, I’m not proposing that a six-year-old child is responsible for her baby sister. I’m just wondering how, when the six-year-old child exited the car, not one of the two adults — including the baby’s mother — glanced back to take note that the infant was still there? You know, in that bulky car seat that you’d just recently buckled your baby into?

People can be absentminded, and it’s understandable how the mother of a baby could suffer from a foggy mind, what with sleep deprivation and overwhelm from new responsibility. Still, my own mind boggles. Forgetting a baby in the back seat of your car isn’t like forgetting to take your birth control pill in the morning, or like leaving your coffee cup on top of your car and driving off, or like setting the items you just purchased beside your car and then driving off once again— all things I did while in the spaced-out state of new motherhood. I get it: as I mentioned, sleepless nights kill a new parent. Postpartum depression afflicts many mothers (myself included). I personally was in a daze for months, even years, after giving birth. But never, ever, did I forget about my kids in the back seat of my car.

And yet these cases are making their way into the news more and more these days, many tragically ending in the child’s death. In July, New York social worker Juan Rodriguez left his twin infants in the car in front of his work. Eight hours later, he came out to find the twins dead.

Rodriguez is said to have told police at the scene: “I assumed I dropped them off at day care before I went to work. I blanked out!”

Really? How can a parent just “blank out” like that, especially after they’re the ones who put the baby in the car seat in the first place? Maybe it’s just I was blessed with noisy children who rarely fell asleep in the car. That or since I’ve always been the main caregiver, I simply never had the privilege of “forgetting” my children. I also tend to be anxious. That, and usually mid-route to wherever I was driving, my babies would pipe up, crying, because they wanted to be held or because, though I’d changed their diaper minutes before we left, they’d crap it up as soon as I got a mile from home. They’d cry for whatever reason, alerting me to their existence. Hold me, feed me, change me. I want you — now! If I was lucky to have a quiet baby in the car, I would worry about when they were going to wake up again. That, or I’d start to get scared that they were only being quiet because they’d choked on some spit up. In short, silence from my babies was not necessarily soothing. I often took their silence as foreboding. As such, I never just “forgot” about my kids while driving them anywhere, much less to their day care or preschool.

Some experts, however, remain steadfast that parents really can simply forget about their kids in the back seat of their cars. University of South Florida Psychology Professor David Diamond Ph.D., who has served as an expert witness on many such cases, explains the typical scenario wherein a caregiver forgets about the child:

“They had every intention to stop at day care, to take their child there, and as they’re driving they go into an autopilot mode. We have a brain memory system that puts us into that autopilot mode, and in fact what it does is it suppresses our conscious memory system so that we’re more likely then to do something out of habit. This is a failure of brain function; it’s not a failure of love.”

Okay — I guess so. Still, it’s hard to believe this actually happens, even if KidsandCars.org, a website dedicated to generating awareness about the dangers of children and cars, notes that there have already been thirty-six cases of children dying from heatstroke in cars this year, one such death occurring just two days ago in Indiana. In that case, the toddler died in the car after church, the parent believing someone else had taken the twenty-one-month-old girl out of the car and put her down for a nap inside the house.

Come on, parents! You really didn’t remember your child was in the car? I just can’t wrap my head around it. Still, the cases of parents literally forgetting about their kids pour in.

Take that of Remi Engler, who died last year. Kidsandcars.org describes Remi’s story:

“In the weeks prior to Remi’s passing, she had been sick and not going to day care. Remi’s father usually took her to day care, but had fallen asleep after a night shift in the ER. So, Remi’s mother decided to take her. Exhausted from a sleepless night with a sick baby and running late, she drove straight to work on autopilot, losing awareness that Remi was asleep in her rear-facing car seat. It wasn’t until the end of her shift as a nurse that she realized Remi was never dropped off. Remi died that day from heatstroke…”

Kidsandcars.org goes on to educate how parents forget about their kids in the car:

“Parents suffer from exhaustion due to lack of sleep, stress and changes in their normal routine. Any one of these can cause your memory to fail at a time when you least expect it. Even the best of caregivers can overlook a sleeping baby in the car.”

And yet I ask myself why Remi was going to day care if she had been sick all night? Still, she went, and the sleepless night that Remi’s mom endured, combined with how hard her typical day as an FNP was, caused Remi’s mom to forget about her. Remi’s mom describes what her job on a page on the KidsandCars website as consisting “of anywhere from 15–30 patients with varying degrees of complexity, as well as signing off orders and reviewing consults, labs and imaging results. My mind was in overdrive that day as I had a mental overload of lists, tasks and issues to deal with.”

As hard as it is to believe that a hard day at work can cause a parent to forget about their child in the car, Remi’s mom isn’t the only parent this has happened to. The same thing happened to Karen Osorio, a senior scientist at Proctor and Gamble, who was shocked when her husband called at the end of the day to say their fifteen-month-old daughter wasn’t at the day-care center when he went to pick her up. Osorio rushed to her car, only to find her daughter, Sofia, there, who had remained buckled in her car seat all day long. Osorio had forgotten to drop off her baby daughter at the day-care center and the child died of heatstroke.

Osorio turned her grief into action, spearheading a public awareness campaign called “Bag in the Back” that urges parents and caregivers to put something of consequence — a purse, a wallet, a cellphone — in the back seat of the car so they’ll have to go to the backseat to get it and therefore be reminded that their infant is there. My cynical response? We actually have to leave something of consequence in the back seat of our cars because an infant is not an object of enough consequence to remember?

Companies are even banking on parents’ forgetfulness. The Cybex Sirona M with SensorSafe 2.0 “monitors the well-being of the seated child through the smart chest clip that is synced with the installed vehicle receiver and the caregiver’s smartphone.” This according to the product’s website.

Because I need an app to remember that my kid is still in the back seat of my car on a hot day — or any day for that matter.

And of course, a bill called The Hot Cars Act has been introduced to the House: “To require the Secretary of Transportation to issue a rule requiring all new passenger motor vehicles to be equipped with a child safety alert system, and for other purposes.”

The bill stipulates:

“Not later than 2 years after the date of the enactment of the Hot Cars Act of 2019, the Secretary shall issue a final rule requiring all new passenger motor vehicles with a gross vehicle weight of 10,000 pounds or less to be equipped with a system to detect the presence of an occupant in a rear designated seating position after the vehicle engine or motor is deactivated and engage a warning. In developing the rule required under this subsection, the Secretary shall consider requiring systems that also detect the presence of any occupant unable to independently exit the vehicle as well as detect the presence of a child who has entered an unoccupied vehicle independently.”

My tax dollars at work, of course.

Cynicism aside, my heart goes out to any parent who has lost a child, and I am usually the type who has an abundance of empathy for people, cutting them slack for their wrongdoings, because let’s face it: I’m not perfect either. Who am I to judge? And to think that a parent would not only have to endure losing their precious child, but also have to live with the fact they had something to do with it — I’m not sure I’d be able to survive that.

Nonetheless, I have trouble buying the argument of parent forgetfulness. Any lawyer representing such a parent definitely wouldn’t want me sitting on the jury.

I’ve always looked at my anxiety surrounding my kids as a bad thing. Hello, Helicopter Mom! With the chronic fatigue that caring for my kids has caused me — my constant vigilance of their whereabouts, my spazzing out about their well-being — I don’t doubt that my sons have knocked a couple years off my life. Viewing it in a different light, though, I see now that perhaps all my anxiety has been a godsend. That and the fact my children have never been easy, quiet kids might just be what has kept them alive.

Former Playboy writer. Professional over-sharer. L.A.-based. More about me: my.bio/theformerlymrs Support: ko-fi.com/ellesilver

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