Psychologists explain how parents can forget kid in the back of a car

Posted at 7:25 PM, Jul 31, 2017
and last updated 2017-08-01 11:07:50-04

Psychologists say most hot car deaths are usually a failure of memory, not a failure of love. 

Dr. David Diamond, a University of Southern Florida professor at the Department of Psychology, Molecular Pharmacology, and Physiology has spent the last three decades studying the science behind why people forget things.

While you can't compare forgetting your keys or your wallet to something as important as a child, Dr. Diamond said the human brain chemistry behind it was similar.

Dr. Diamond has interviewed dozens of families accused of "forgetting" their child in a car as part of his research.

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"They all said the very same thing, 'I can't imagine forgetting my child at first,' and then it happened to them," said Dr. Diamond.

He added that this was not something that happened to parents who were negligent. 

"This really has to do with normal brain functioning in which some information just gets lost, even information as important as my child is in the car," said Diamond. 

Diamond said most of these cases he looked into involved a quiet baby sleeping in the back, in a car seat facing away from the parent. Most of the cases also involved drives during which the child was not typically present in the car with the parent, grandparent or caregiver.

"What really happens during these drives is that people lose awareness that the child is in the car," said Diamond.

He described this as going into an auto-pilot mode.

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"It's not that the child is not important, but when the brain goes into auto-pilot mode we lose awareness, these are parents who love their children, they're good people," he said. "I've never met an abusive parent who did it."

"Every single parent says, 'When I exited my car I was sure the child was somewhere else.'"

Somehow the brain actually plays a trick on us, that's what's really disturbing, when the parent exits the car they actually had absolute certainty that the child is at daycare or with someone else," added Diamond. 

He advised placing something in front of the car, instead of just the back seat to trigger your memory. 

In addition to placing your purse or briefcase in the back seat by the car seat, every time you put the baby in the car seat, Dr. Diamond advised putting the baby's bag or a stuffed toy in the front seat as well, somewhere where you could see it. 

You can download apps that will remind and alert you every time you place a child in the back seat as well. 

Child safety advocates also advised talking to your day care provider to call you if the child does not show up at the assigned time, as an additional reminder.