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Understanding the ‘forgotten child syndrome’ of leaving kids in hot cars – and how to prevent it

Sun reflects off car windshields in a parking lot
Gabriel C. Pérez
/
KUT News

Summer officially starts on June 20, but sweltering temperatures have already arrived in Texas. Last week, record-high temperatures were recorded across the state, including 111 degrees in San Angelo and 109 degrees in Del Rio.

The extreme summer heat can be dangerous – even deadly – for kids left in cars, according to the nonprofit advocacy group Kids and Car Safety. Since 1990, 150 children have died in Texas from being left in hot cars, more than any other state.

David Diamond, a professor of psychology at the University of South Florida in Tampa whose research focuses on forgotten child syndrome, joined the Standard with more about the phenomenon and how to prevent it.

What is forgotten child syndrome?

Forgotten child syndrome – not actually a medical syndrome – is when a parent or caretaker unknowingly and unintentionally loses awareness of a child in a car and forgets the child when they exit the vehicle, Diamond said.

“We make a plan. The plan is to take the child to day care. And what happens during the drive is we have a competing memory system, which is our habit memory system. And when it takes over, we do something automatically,” he said. “We go into this autopilot mode. We lose awareness of the child in the car.”

Memory failures are actually very common, Diamond said, from the benign – forgetting to stop at the store on the way home – to the major, like Brittney Griner forgetting she had vape cartridges with cannabis oil in her luggage in Russia.

“Most people simply say, ‘you can forget keys, you can forget someone’s name, you can forget all kinds of things, but you never forget a child in a car.’ And so therefore, most people simply will be very critical of anyone that forgets a child in a car,” he said. “And I’ve had so many people who had said that, and then they ended up forgetting their child in a car.

“So what I have found in my research is that it is really common that people forget children in cars, and they’re very lucky that they happen to see the child or they hear the child.”

Understanding false memories

Many parents who forget a child are confused by memories of dropping their child off at day care, even though that didn’t happen, as they arrive at their destination and their brain fills in the void.

“The brain creates the false memory that they actually accomplish the goal, which is to take the child to day care,” Diamond said. “And what is just so horrific is that then the person now goes to work – fully aware, of course, that they have a child. They say, ‘I need to go pick up my child at day care.’ And they’ve completely lost awareness that the child is in the car.

“So when they return to the car to find that the child has died of heatstroke, this is a memory now that will haunt them for the rest of their lives.”

Prevention tips

The first step is for people to accept the possibility that they could forget their child in a car, Diamond said.

“Once you accept that possibility, then I’d say the low-tech approach is put something of the child in the front seat only when the child is in the car,” he said. “That way you have a reminder that the child is there.”

Diamond also noted that federal law requires all new cars to have a child detection system.

“If you don’t have the technology, then just make it a habit that you take something of the child, put it in the front seat,” he said.

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