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ParentingNew Research Says Anyone Can Leave A Baby In A Hot Car

New Research Says Anyone Can Leave A Baby In A Hot Car

One of the biggest hot-button issues in parenting and baby safety is the tragedy of leaving a baby in a hot car—not because anyone argues it’s not common or dangerous, but because many people think they’d never be capable of doing it.

New research shows that anyone is actually capable of forgetting a child in a hot car, and it has nothing to do with being a “good” or “bad” parent.

A leading expert in cognitive neuroscience who has studied the role of memory in such tragedies finds that the massive amount of stresses most parents face every single day makes these types of memory lapses more likely. Forgetting a child is not a negligence problem but a memory problem, says David Diamond, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of South Florida in Tampa.

Since 1998, about 950 children have died in hot cars and more than half of them were left behind unknowingly by their caregiver, according to NoHeatStroke.org.

“The most common response is that only bad or negligent parents forget kids in cars,” Diamond tells Consumer Reports. “It’s a matter of circumstances. It can happen to everyone.”

Diamond’s research shows that because most families change their daily routines during the summertime—disrupting their normal behavior patterns—tragic incidents like forgetting a baby in a hot car become more commonplace.

“The worst thing any parent or caregiver can ever do is to think that something like this could never happen to them or someone in their family,” says Janette Fennell, founder and president of KidsAndCars.org.

How the brain functions when it comes to memory

There are two parts of a person’s working memory: prospective and semantic. Prospective memory helps us remember to do something in the future, whereas semantic allows us to drive on “autopilot,” where we arrive somewhere without remembering clear details of how we got there.

So while prospective memory helps us make changes to our daily routines and behavior patterns, when we’re stressed or distracted, this part of our working memory can fail.

“We have to accept the fact that our brain multitasks. And as a part of that multitasking, the awareness of a child can be lost,” Diamond says. “We have to accept that the human memory is flawed. That includes when loving, attentive parents lose awareness of their children when they are in a car.”

Unfortunately, cases of heatstroke and infants in cars, the three most common factors in these deaths are stress, sleep deprivation, and change in routine. Like when a parent or caregiver who doesn’t normally drop a child off at daycare is suddenly tasked with doing so, their brains may not recognize the pattern change without some sort of “external cue,” like seeing the diaper bag or hearing the baby in the backseat. When that parent or caregiver is stressed or tired, Diamond explains that the potential for working-memory failure increases.

His research has shown that conflicts between semantic and prospective memory are normal, and that they happen to everyone—not just parents and caregivers—on almost a daily basis.

Parents can follow these strategies from Consumer Reports to prevent these tragedies from occuring.

  • Create safeguards. Set up an agreement with child-care providers, whereby parents promise to notify child-care providers if their child is going to be late or absent. In return, the child-care providers pledge to notify parents if children do not arrive at their usual drop-off time. Set reminders on your phone to check with your spouse or partner to make sure they have dropped the child off.
  • Always keep vehicles locked and keys out of reach from little hands.
  • Create visual reminders. Place the child’s diaper bag, jacket, or hat in the front passenger seat.
  • Force yourself to go to the back seat. Keep your backpack, lunch box, or briefcase there every day.
  • Never leave a child unattended in a vehicle for any length of time, regardless of the outside temperature. Vehicles can quickly heat up to potentially fatal levels on even mild-temperature days.

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