A lot of people throw around the phrase “It was every parent’s worst nightmare,” but this actually is. I can unequivocally say that leaving a baby in a car is every parent’s worst nightmare.
Other than that, I have no words, because there are no words. I can think of no words to describe that deep gut-punched feeling a parent gets when they read yet another headline heralding the death of a child locked in a hot car.
This is probably why some parents are so quick to judge. When I hear people say things like, “How could a parent leave a child unattended in a car?” or “What kind of parent does that?” or “I’m thinking about my child 24/7! What kind of parent isn’t thinking about their child all the time?” or, “They should be tried and found guilty for murder!” I know that these harsh comments are stemming from fear.
Fear that if those parents are normal, good parents—and statistically, they almost always are—then if it could happen to them, it could happen to anyone. It’s a phenomenon that is common enough to have received its own name: Forgotten Baby Syndrome.
This syndrome is described by neuroscientist Dr. David Diamond as “a competition between the brain’s ‘habit memory’ system and its ‘prospective memory’ system—and the ‘habit memory’ system prevails.”
In other words, if your brain has been wired for a particular routine, it will want to stick to that routine, no matter how you’ve planned to changed it up that day.
In other, other words, have you ever gotten into the car in the morning, intent on heading to the library to drop off those overdue books, but you drove straight to work, as usual? Or have you ever meant to pick up some diapers at the end of a long day, but despite taking note of that decision less than five minutes earlier, you head home without making the stop?
“Agh!” you say when you arrive at the wrong but familiar destination. You may even slap yourself on the forehead. “I can’t believe I forgot!” Maybe you chuckle a little at your own forgetfulness.
If that’s ever happened to you, then guess what? You have made the same mistake that parents who have forgotten their children in cars make, just with far less deadly and devastating consequences.
It only happened to me once, and only for the span of ten seconds, long enough to put the car keys into my pocketbook and step away from my parked car with its precious occupant still inside, only to feel that hot and cold horror jolt up my spine—I came with my baby. Where is my baby?—but that one time was enough to make me deathly afraid ever since.
Just moments ago, I sent my baby’s babysitter a message, hoping it sounds casual:
Hey! Just checking on how Gitty is doing. She okay?
And I hold my breath until the message comes back:
She’s great. She’s delicious!
I message my husband on the rare occasion that he is the one who brings her over:
Got the baby in okay?
And wait until he writes back:
Yup. Went fine.
He knows why I am messaging him. Every parent knows.
Last year, 52 children died after being trapped inside an overheated vehicle, which makes it the deadliest year for hot deaths in the past 20. Altogether, since records of these deaths began in 1998, 805 children have died of vehicular heatstroke, more than half of them under the age of two, including ten since the start of 2019.