Forgotten Baby Syndrome: Should A Parent Be Blamed For Leaving A Child In A Hot Car?

ABC News reports even the most attentive parents are capable of making a fatal mistake. To some, the question seems unfathomable – how exactly does a parent forget his or her child is in the vehicle? David Diamond, professor of psychology, molecular pharmacology, and physiology at the University of South Florida, defends these parents by saying forgotten baby syndrome does exist. According to this professor, he has done studies on the human brain to prove the existence of forgotten baby syndrome.

“It’s where the parent completely loses awareness that the child is in the car,” Diamond said. “It’s our brain habit system. It allows you to do things without thinking about it. That plan we have to stop a habit seems to get suppressed. We lose awareness of our plan to interrupt that habit. These different brain systems actually compete against each other.”

According to ABC News, Diamond has been studying forgotten baby syndrome since the year 2004. He has even served as an expert witness when parents are facing charges for murder, manslaughter, and child endangerment in cases related to child vehicular heatstroke deaths. This professor does not believe these parents are to blame in some cases. He believes forgotten baby syndrome is the true culprit. Through his research, he has been able to come up with a hypothesis on why he believes these tragic deaths happen in the first place.

According to this professor, there is a competition in the human brain between what is called “habit memory system” and “prospective memory system.” When the habit memory system manages to take over, this is when forgotten baby syndrome occurs.

“Memory is a machine,” Diamond told the Washington Post, “And it is not flawless. Our conscious mind prioritizes the things by importance, but on a cellular level, our memory does not. If you’re capable of forgetting your cellphone, you are potentially capable of forgetting your child.”

Forgotten baby syndrome is defined as the “failure to remember that a child is in one’s vehicle.”

When a parent such as Brett Cavaliero drives to work and forgets to drop off children at work, it is typically because it is not part of their routine. Parents’ brains have to use their prospective memory system in order to be successful in dropping off their child at daycare.

When parents are stressed or sleep deprived – which is very common in all parents – it is normal for parents to default to repetitive actions and routine. For a parent who drives from home to work every day – and doesn’t usually take children to daycare – they may not even realize what they are or are not doing.

“You sort of go in auto pilot mode,” Diamond said.

“It interferes with our prospective memory system and it makes us more likely do something out of habit. There’s a common factor in most of these cases — when you have a have a loss of sleep and stress, we know that it specifically targets the prospective memory system. It’s like forgetting a cup of coffee on the roof. You have every intention of bringing it in, but you don’t. It’s not that I’m trivializing the life of a child. I’m just making an observation that there are good, attentive, loving parents who lose awareness that their child is in the car. As a scientist, I’m trying to understand how this happens.”

A Parent’s Nightmare

May 25, 2011, started out just like any other day for Kristie Reeves. With the exception of the baby oversleeping – which was something the baby usually didn’t do. Brett Cavaliero, her husband, had to take their 1-year-old daughter, Sophia Rayne “Ray Ray” Cavaliero, to daycare because Kristie needed to prepare for a conference call.

Unfortunately, for Brett and Kristie, this day ended in tragedy. What both parents – and anyone who believes in the forgotten baby syndrome – claim was a tragic accident.

The parents claimed Ray Ray was the perfect child. They remember asking the pediatrician if raising a baby was supposed to be so easy. Kristie claims her husband was extremely nervous about becoming a father, but quickly wanted another one after having Ray Ray.

After getting her daughter ready and sending her off with her father to daycare, Kristie picked up her husband for a lunch date. This was something the couple did together any time Reeves has to travel for business.

Temperature rises in hot car
As the two drove to the restaurant, they talked about how pretty their daughter looked in the dress she wore that day. When Kristie pulled into the parking lot was when her husband realized he could not remember taking their daughter to daycare. The couple raced back to Brett’s job and Brett called the office manager to check his truck.

Ray Ray, who was forgotten in the backseat of the truck, was unresponsive when she was removed from the truck. It was 94 degrees that day and the little girl had been in the truck from around 10:30 a.m. to 1:27 p.m.

CPR was performed on Ray Ray for 13 minutes until the ambulance arrived. The team worked on the baby for 40 minutes before she was transported to a local children’s hospital. Doctors made three unsuccessful attempts to open her airway. The baby was later pronounced dead at the hospital.

The father was detained and questioned while Ray Ray was in the hospital. According to the girl’s mother, the father never got a chance to say goodbye to his daughter before they turned the machines off. The mother claims Brett fell apart, lost his mind, and had to be medically sedated.

While both Child Protective Services and the police questioned Brett, he was not charged as there was no evidence to suggest it was anything other than a tragic accident – the result of forgotten baby syndrome.

“We took every single parenting class they offered because we were scared to death. They taught us how to hold a baby, feed a baby, sleep safety, swaddling, but never once did anyone tell us about forgotten baby syndrome.”

Baby left in hot car
Preventing Forgotten Baby Syndrome

According to the Department of Meteorology and Climate Science at San Jose State University, 54 percent of cases involving hot car deaths in the United States can be blamed on forgotten baby syndrome. Out of the 677 children who have died from vehicular heatstroke since the year 1998, 354 of them were at or under a year old.

Diamond said the very first thing that must happen to prevent forgotten baby syndrome is accepting the fact that it exists. He believes society needs to stop seeing parents who suffer from forgotten baby syndrome as bad parents. He believes even the most attentive parent can suffer from this syndrome.

Diamond suggests parents consider keeping something in the front seat to alert them to the child in the back seat. This can include something as simple as a note reminding them the child is back there. He also believes direct communication with the daycare, school, or wherever the child is going is imperative. The daycare needs to call the parents and ask where the child is – if the child does not arrive.

Is forgotten baby syndrome to blame for the deaths of these children? What do you think?

[Image via Shutterstock]