Death by Multitasking: Forgotten Baby Syndrome

Forgotten Baby Syndrome: Excuse or Biology?A Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post article cited something called “forgotten baby syndrome,” which draws collective eye rolls from the Internet anytime someone links to it as another way to excuse parents from taking responsibility for forgetting a baby in a hot  car. But the syndrome label isn’t an excuse: it’s a way to identify a phenomenon. A label was needed because researchers were unable to find a common thread in these hot car deaths.

And that’s when everyone needs to shut up and put away the pitchforks, because the inability to find a common thread in these deaths means that they are not caused by crappy parents, lack of information, or people not loving their kid as much as you love yours. It means that something out of our control is at work.

As parents, there’s no escaping it: you have to multitask. Even if you have one child, there’s no way you can be present and attentive all day long. At some point, every one has to use the bathroom, especially when it takes three cups of coffee to overcome your sleep deficit from the night before. There’s a happy medium, and yours depends on your own mental capacity on a good day, how many responsibilities you have, how many kids you have, and how much stress you are under.

A researcher at the University of South Florida studied what happens in our brains when emotion, stress and memory compete for priority, and the results aren’t good. Have you ever driven to work while thinking about a stressful meeting that day and missed your exit, or realized you had no recollection of the past five minutes? That’s highway hypnosis—when the efficient but unintelligent part of your brain takes over driving while the prefrontal cortex is planning your meeting strategy. That same mechanism is at work when people forget their children in the backseat.

The common theme in all these tragic stories is: stress, a change in routine, and multitasking. Adding an extra errand to a routine trip, talking on your phone while driving, or taking a different car to work can throw our brains off. So how, outside of waiting for someone to invent an app or extra feature on our vehicle, can we keep our brains from forgetting our kids?

In all these cases, the parents forgot the children because they thought they were accounted for, and that idea shut off their mom radar. You know it–it’s that part of your brain that is always aware of what your children are doing at any given moment. Any reminder of the child would have made the mom radar light back up—a diaper bag in the front seat, a backseat mirror, a picture.

I already knew that my brain was very fallible after having three kids, but here’s what I plan to do differently after reading about forgotten baby syndrome. Because I have kids, a job, and my family is drama. So it most certainly could  happen to me.

  • Staying present. I’m working on this in other areas of my life too, but I have decided that multitasking around car trips is especially dangerous based on what I know now. Besides, there are studies that prove that multitasking makes us dumb. Keeping your brain focused on one task at a time is better for memory, critical thinking and–most importantly when you are dealing with children–your emotional intelligence.
  • Always looking in the backseat. I rarely get to go somewhere alone, but even when I am alone, I’m going to make it a habit to check the backseat before locking the car. It takes two seconds.
  • I’m done using my phone in the car, period. The act of answering that call or even checking a text once I have arrived somewhere might draw my memory power elsewhere, especially if there’s drama or stress on the other end. I’m no longer going to touch the phone until I have checked the backseat and locked the car. If you can’t keep your hands off the phone while driving, there’s already several apps for that.
  • Keeping a reminder in the front seat. There are always toys, shoes, or something else kid-related in my car. When I have the kids in the car with me, I can grab one of those items and put it on top of my purse to help me remember to check the backseat.
  • Putting a photo of my kids on the dash. Again, it’s about jogging that memory of having your child with you. Maybe having a photo keychain or photo on my dash might help. I just need an excuse for my brain to check in and ask the question, “Where are the kids?”
  • Be aware that you are more forgetful when you are stressed, emotional, or have a change in routine.  Our brains are smart and efficient, but only under the best of circumstances. Maybe just being aware that we are more likely to forget our children in certain circumstances can help us be more careful.

I’m not saying these are foolproof methods. There are lots of maybes. What they do is add layers of security and give my brain several chances to remember if needed. Maybe if we are aware that we are vulnerable, we can change that.

One thing that doesn’t change anything—not a damn thing—is vilifying parents who have already been through the worst punishment on Earth and thinking you are immune to their mistake.

Erin Burt is a multitasking mother of three girls who just barely manages to keep it all together most days. She lives and writes in Queensbury, New York. 

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One Response to “Death by Multitasking: Forgotten Baby Syndrome”

  1. Emrae says:

    I forgot my baby once. I was very lucky to realize that I had forgotten her. I think if my errand for the morning would have been anywhere other than the baby clothing store I may not have remembered that I changed my plans last minute and decided to take her with me instead of leave her with my other 3 kids at my sister’s home. My brain never stopped running through the things I was going to accomplish really quick as I grabbed my crying baby, once strapped in her seat she stopped crying I was visiting my sister out of town and wanted to use a carter’s coupon, I had never been to the carter’s store before and I had a date with my husband 3 hours away in 4 hours. When I got to the store I completely forgot my daughter, as far as my brain knew she was at my sisters’. I am constantly counting my children. Even when I know my children are with other people I check the back seat, every time. I was sick to my stomach for weeks thinking that the adorable outfit I had to buy for my sweet baby may have been worn to her funeral. I am heartbroken that this can happen but I am well aware that it does. I love my children very much. I hate admitting this but I just hope it helps people realize that it can happen to anyone. Now parents who choose to leave their child in their cars. . . that’s a completely different story.