. . . What kind of world do we live in, that parents actually need a reminder to remember their baby? How could you ever FORGET your BABY????
. . . Parents who forget their baby in the car obviously weren’t fit to ever have children in the first place. Some. people. just. should. not. breed.
. . . I would never, ever forget my sweet baby. I love my baby.
Can loving our babies prevent heat stroke in car seats?
It was very difficult for me to write this post. The subject is nothing less than horrifying. We recognize it for what it is: an abomination, and our natural reaction is real, deep, visceral horror. It is the stuff of nightmares.
When you hear that a small baby was forgotten by his mother and left strapped into his car seat for hours until he overheated and died, everything in you recoils. You think of your own precious child, of all the care you have taken with him, all the joy he brings you, all the times you put his needs above your own, all the times you were exhausted and overwhelmed and you still put him first because you love him, and you think about how that’s what a parent’s love is. You would never — could never — forget your baby. Never.
As an experienced, educated, attached mother, I could never forget my baby.
Until the day I did.
One gorgeous summer day, four years ago, I pulled into a parking lot at a local thrift shop to meet a friend for a rare outing. When I arrived, I didn’t see my friend waiting outside; I went into the shop to see if she had arrived. I was strolling back outside as she pulled in. She got out, and by way of greeting, she said, “Oh, no baby today?”
In that moment I was overwhelmed by panic, with the sudden awful knowing.
My tiny baby was still in the van. He was not safe and snug in a wrap. He was not at home cuddling with his father. He was forgotten.
I have never before or since experienced the world falling out from under me like it did then.
I ran back to my parking space, frantic, and then relieved, to find my precious baby was still peacefully asleep. He was fine. It had only been a few minutes, and no harm was done.
Even so, that moment is frozen in time for me. What has always stayed with me was not only that I forgot him in the first place (which was confounding enough) but also that it wasn’t my brain that triggered the remembering. It was my friend’s casual, offhand comment that did that. There are so many ways my story could have had a different ending. If my friend didn’t think to remark on the fact that my baby wasn’t on me. If I wasn’t meeting a friend at all. If. If. If.
I’m human, and I never thought I couldn’t make mistakes. However, I did think that loving my baby with all my heart, making the best choices I could as a mother, and cherishing our attachment protected me from mistakes like that.
We reassure ourselves with myths about neuropsychology
As many good parents do, I believed a good parent simply couldn’t forget her baby in the car. This reassuring thought insulates against the awful thoughts and emotions that threaten to overwhelm us when we face the some babies are left in cars, forgotten and dying. It allows us to be comforted; we can rest easy because that kind of tragedy only happens to parents who are Not Like Us. We look for the reasons that those parents were to blame for their baby’s death, and we look for those things that will absolve us. Everything in us rejects it, and we’ll do anything to avoid personalizing it.
Before the mid-1990s, it was easier — much easier — to assume that only a selfish or unworthy parent could forget their baby in the car. Until then, infant deaths from hyperthermia in cars were 4 or 5 a year. It’s not hard to imagine that most or all of those were the result of neglect by parents who actually weren’t equipped to keep young children safe. It’s easy for us to be insulated from that tragedy, because it’s difficult for most of us to see ourselves in the story of a crack-addicted mother leaving her baby in a hot car outside a drug dealer’s house for hours so she can get high. We can be angry and grieve for that child, but it is from the protective circle created by the certainty that the mother is Not Like Us.
Unforeseen consequences of increasing car seat safety
But then, in 1993, the number of annual deaths from heat stroke in car seats doubled, and the turn of the century saw them triple. Placing baby in a rear-facing carseat in the back seat of the car has drastically reduced fatalities and injuries in crashes, but the tradeoff is that babies are much less visible to the driver. Many think this change has contributed to the increase in hyperthermia accidents. In the US, around 38 children die each year from being left in hot cars, and in some years that number has approached 50. Not all these deaths are caused by a parent’s tragic distraction, of course; there are still parents who neglect their children, parents who believe it’s not that risky to leave a child unattended in a car, and children who climb into a parked car and become trapped. But more than 50% of child hyperthermia deaths in cars happen when the child is unintentionally forgotten. According to a recent survey on the SafeKids.org website, nearly 1 in 4 parents of a child under 3 has forgotten their child in a car.
It’s become more difficult not to see ourselves in these tragedies. One of the parents in that 25% could easily be your friend, your pediatrician, or your spouse — parents you admire. Parents who love their babies. Parents who are close enough to being Exactly Like Us that it threatens our complacency. We need to believe that we are, somehow, fundamentally different from those baby-forgetters.
This is a normal response. This is human. And it is dangerous.
Shining a light on the harsh reality about hyperthermia-related car seat injuries
There was a Pulitzer Prize winning article in the Washington Post a few years ago by Gene Weingarten on child hyperthermia deaths in cars. It isn’t an easy read. It’s a graphic, gut-wrenching, heartbreaking piece that left me feeling shattered. It walks its reader through the unimaginable horror of forgetting a child in a car and shines an unflinching light on it.
In his article, Fatal Distraction, Weingarten explains that people have to cling to the idea that good parents never forget their baby. Says Weingarten, “A substantial proportion of the public reacts not merely with anger, but with frothing vitriol.” He refers to the work of Ed Hickling, a clinical psychologist,saying,
“Ed Hickling believes he knows why . . . .
“Humans, Hickling said, have a fundamental need to create and maintain a narrative for their lives in which the universe is not implacable and heartless, that terrible things do not happen at random, and that catastrophe can be avoided if you are vigilant and responsible.
“In hyperthermia cases, he believes, the parents are demonized for much the same reasons. ‘We are vulnerable, but we don’t want to be reminded of that. We want to believe that the world is understandable and controllable and unthreatening, that if we follow the rules, we’ll be okay. So, when this kind of thing happens to other people, we need to put them in a different category from us. We don’t want to resemble them, and the fact that we might is too terrifying to deal with. So, they have to be monsters.'”
But how could I just forget? (The fallability of prospective memory)
This question and its explanation bring us to what is called “prospective memory.” Prospective memory is remembering to perform a planned action or intention at the appropriate time – or, more simply, remembering to remember.
Failure of prospective memory is at the heart of most of these hyperthermia deaths, and failure of prospective memory can happen to anyone. It happens to surgeons, to pilots … and to parents.
The scientists in the growing field of prospective memory research are beginning to understand the times that prospective memory is likely to fail. Our grey matter permits us to multitask by switching to autopilot when we’re performing a habitual task, such as operating a vehicle. You can often notice this when you’re driving; it’s normal. “Autopiloting” certain tasks allows our brain to function efficiently. It is also one component researchers notice when they look at prospective memory failures.
Prospective memory failure is not related to carelessness or ignorance or selfishness. It’s not a character flaw. It happens more than we realize; since it’s usually just a minor annoyance, we hardly notice it.
But occasionally, we forget to remember, and there are serious consequences. Sometimes, someone forgets to turn off the stove top. And sometimes, someone forgets that their quiet baby is with them instead of with the other parent or daycare provider.
One day you’re driving to daycare on the way to work, and something happens to interrupt your usual routine. It could be something insignificant. Perhaps you barely register that it happened. But in the background of your mind, your prospective memory fails. Your brain has dropped the ball — without your intention, and without your awareness. The failure might mean missing your turn by a couple blocks until, suddenly, you realize your error. You feel momentary chagrin or irritation, you turn around, and you go about your day.
But the same kind of failure might mean you drive straight to work with your child in the back seat, and it is hours before your prospective memory kicks in. Or it might be that your brain has lost the thread entirely; you don’t realize that you forgot to remember unless something (or someone) reminds you. Or until you arrive at your mother’s house that afternoon to pick up your child, only to discover you never dropped him off.
The strength of your love doesn’t matter to your memory
The difference between remembering to remember within minutes of a lapse, or not until long hours have passed, is not in the strength of your willpower or how much you love your baby or whether you are a responsible, competent parent.
“What kind of person forgets a baby?
“The wealthy do, it turns out. And the poor, and the middle class. Parents of all ages and ethnicities do it. Mothers are just as likely to do it as fathers. It happens to the chronically absent-minded and to the fanatically organized, to the college-educated and to the marginally literate. In the last 10 years, it has happened to a dentist. A postal clerk. A social worker. A police officer. An accountant. A soldier. A paralegal. An electrician. A Protestant clergyman. A rabbinical student. A nurse. A construction worker. An assistant principal. It happened to a mental health counselor, a college professor and a pizza chef. It happened to a pediatrician. It happened to a rocket scientist.”
It could happen to you.
Even good parents can forget.
It is critical that you believe this. Believing this could save your baby’s life. Because once you believe, you can take steps to make sure that even if you have a failure of memory, you will not forget your baby.
How can I protect my child from this prospective memory failure?
Increased understanding of these tragic memory failures means that parents and experts are finding solutions to prevent parents or caregivers from EVER forgetting. Because we understand more and more that this is beyond conscious choice, we can begin to use strategies that are within our control to prevent this.
- Leave your handbag and cell phone beside the carseat.
- Leave your coat beside the carseat in cold weather. In warm weather, leave your left shoe. You might forget your phone or bag, but you won’t get very far with just one shoe before you notice.
- Keep a big, brightly colored stuffed animal in the carseat, and when baby is in the car, the animal goes up front to sit next to you.
- Use a caribiner clip to attach a large toy to your bag when you clip your baby into her seat, and clip it to her seat when you take her out.
- Go high tech with a sensor that can detect if there is weight in the carseat (an alert is sent to your cell phone if that weight remains after the car is turned off) or other carseat monitor.
- Place a Check the Carseat sticker on your driver’s side window as a visual cue.
- Make your own E-Z Baby Saver, an invention by 11-year-old Andrew Pelham of Nashville – a strap made of rubber bands and duct tape.
Do you have your own trick for remembering to remember? Tell us in the comments section below!
Also, you can read Gene Weingarten’s take on car seat deaths, winner of the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing here:
(Please be aware that this article, while important, is emotionally difficult to read.)
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