The neuroscience that explains the awful truth that anyone is capable of accidentally killing their child

It can happen to anyone.
It can happen to anyone.
Image: AP photo/Mstyslav Chernov
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An average of 37 children each year in the US die of overheating after being trapped in cars. In more than half of these cases, the children were unintentionally forgotten by parents, grandparents, or other caregivers who parked, locked the doors, and went about their day, oblivious to the fact that the child was still strapped into the carseat in the back.

It’s tempting to believe only a negligent parent could make such a horrifying mistake. The far more troubling truth is that this deadly lapse is triggered by a neurological quirk that can and does happen to anyone, regardless of competence, intelligence, education, gender, age, or any other demographic marker. If you have a brain, a routine, and stress, you are capable of forgetting a child in the car.

The problem lies in a competition that occurs between the various systems in our brain. The hippocampus and prefrontal cortex work together to keep the complex schedule girding a parent’s day. Together, these two parts of our brain act as a system that remembers to drop the toddler off at day care before the older kid’s doctor appointment while calling in to a morning meeting from the car—usually without incident. But when stress or unexpected events enter the picture, more primitive functions located in the basal ganglia and amygdala can hijack this higher system that keeps us on top of responsibilities.

An upsetting phone call or pressing deadline can upend the brain just long enough for a parent to forget to swing by the day care and instead head straight to the parking garage at work, without registering that their baby is still sleeping in the back. In some cases, caregivers have driven to day-care centers to pick up a child they believed they’d dropped off that morning, without realizing the deceased child is still strapped into the backseat.

Psychology professor David Diamond at the University of South Florida has studied this problem extensively. He calls it “forgotten baby syndrome.”

Under stress, explains Stephen Cowen, a psychology professor at the University of Arizona, “you may be more attentive to the immediate sensory stimuli or threats in your environment but not as attentive to your more distant memory of leaving your children in the car.”

These deaths started happening in the mid-1990s, when safety experts determined that children were safer riding in the back seats of cars than the front. That change has saved an estimated 200 lives per year (paywall), but carried an unintended consequence: Since 1998, 714 children in the US have died from overheating after being left in a car. Instances peak in summer, though the day doesn’t have to be especially hot to be deadly. When the temperature outside is anywhere from 72° to 96°F, the interior temperature of a parked car rises almost 30°F in the first 20 minutes—and children overheat faster than adults do. There have been cases where children have fatally overheated in a parked car when the temperature was as low as 60°F outside.

Given the universality of this problem, there’s been a curious lack of technological fixes. Baby monitors now can automatically order more diapers and soothe children back to sleep. Parents can outfit their newborns in smart socks that send updates on the baby’s oxygen levels and heart rates to their phones. There are a few nascent technologies—GM, for one, includes a “rear-seat reminder” feature in some of its new models—but there is no reliable, mass-market technology that alerts adults when a child is in a car and isn’t supposed to be.

That may be about to change. A Florida-based company called Sense-A-Life will soon take pre-orders on a sensor pad that goes under a child’s car seat and beeps  if the car doors close and the child is still inside. They’re not the only ones working on a solution to the problem. A 10-year-old boy in Texas is raising money to patent a cooling device he invented after a neighboring baby died in a car.

Previous products on the market were unreliable and difficult to use, according to a 2012 National Highway Traffic Safety Administration review. But ultimately their failure to save lives lay with a deeper problem, one that journalist Gene Weingarten explained in a searing 2009 Washington Post story on the subject that won the Pulitzer Prize: Marketing studies suggest that people won’t buy such products because they believe—inaccurately—that they would never make such a mistake.

That’s why tech solutions might need to be combined with some push towards behavioral change. Earlier this month, a bipartisan group of legislators introduced a bill—the HOT CARS Act of 2017—to the House of Representatives that would require all new cars to have safety sensors that gives off audio and visual alerts (the bill is light on details) when a child is in the backseat and the car is turned off. Until then, safety advocates suggest low-tech safeguards against drivers’ faulty brains, like leaving a purse, a phone, or even a shoe in the backseat next to the child. Experts also advise locking parked cars at home, as children have died after crawling into cars and getting trapped.

The idea of inadvertently causing the death of a child you love and care for is harrowing. To prevent it, you must first face the awful truth that it can happen to you, too.