Forgotten Baby Syndrome can happen to anyone

The dangers of forgotten baby syndrome can't be overstated.
The dangers of forgotten baby syndrome can't be overstated. Photo: Shutterstock.

It was a dangerous mistake that could have had fatal consequences.

On Thursday, after a "rough night" with his little one, a Sydney dad drove to work, leaving his toddler in a hot car. "He fell asleep in the car, I thought I had dropped him off, and I went straight to work," he told media. Police were forced to smash the window of the vehicle to free the little boy who was taken to Royal North Shore Hospital suffering mild dehydration. While inquiries are continuing, no charges have been laid.

Tragically, the Neutral Bay dad's story is not an isolated incident.

In 2012, five-month-old baby Bella Poole of Bendigo, died of heatstroke after her mother Jayde Poole, accidentally left her in a hot car. Ms Poole was found not guilty of manslaughter, the court hearing the mother-of-three suffered from "forgotten baby syndrome".

In 2013, under similar circumstances, an 11-month-old boy from Helena Valley, Perth, died after his father forgot to drop him at childcare. It wasn't until the father went to collect his son after work, that he found the little boy's body, unresponsive, in the back of his car. 

And, in February 2015, a 22-month-old boy, Noah Zunde, was found dead in a car outside a childcare centre in Kyneton Victoria, when his mother went to collect him, believing she had dropped him off that morning.  A medical expert told the coroner that the mum was suffering from "forgotten baby syndrome" and was "severely sleep deprived." Her memory may also have been affected by various stressors, and a change to her normal routine.

In his Pulitzer Prize winning piece "Fatal Distraction", published in The Washington Post, journalist Gene Weingarten notes that there is no consistent "character profile of the parent who does this to his or her child." 

In other words, it could happen to any of us.

"The wealthy do, it turns out. And the poor, and the middle class. Parents of all ages and ethnicities do it. Mothers are just as likely to do it as fathers. It happens to the chronically absent-minded and to the fanatically organised, to the college-educated and to the marginally literate." In 2016 it even happened to a NASA employee. The coroner's report into the death of Noah Zunde, released in June 2017, notes that in Australia, there have been five children who have died as a result of being left in a motor vehicle over the last ten years. 

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Professor David Diamond of the University of South Florida, has studied forgotten baby syndrome since 2004. "Memory is a machine," Diamond told The Washington Post, "and it is not flawless. Our conscious mind prioritises things by importance, but on a cellular level, our memory does not. If you're capable of forgetting your cellphone, you are potentially capable of forgetting your child."

Writing for The Conversation, Professor Diamond explained his hypothesis as to how these tragedies occur. "This type of memory failure is the result of a competition between the brain's "habit memory" system and its "prospective memory" system," he writes, "and the habit memory system prevails." What exactly is prospective memory? It's the planning and execution of an action in the future – such as dropping a child off to daycare.

Fatigue, stress and a change in routine are other factors implicated in cases of forgotten baby syndrome. That's parenthood –partiucularly those early years –in a nutshell.

"A universal observation I have made is that each parent's brain appears to have created the false memory that he or she had brought the child to daycare," Professor Diamond continues. "This scientific anomaly explains why these parents went about their routine activities, which even included telling others that they needed to leave work on time to retrieve their child from daycare." 

It can happen to anyone. Image/ Kids and Cars.

Janette Fennell is the president and founder of Kids and Cars, a non –profit organisation in the US dedicated to protecting children both in and around vehicles. Speaking to Sunday Night in 2015 as part of a feature on forgotten baby syndrome, Fennell said, "People need to understand these are not failures of love, this is a failure of our memory. And we should all be working together to do whatever we can to save these babies' lives.

"Somehow all of our cars tell us if we've left our headlights on because nobody wants a dead battery but it's ok to have a dead baby? she said.

It's a point also raised by Coroner Sara Hinchey after her investigation into the death of Noah Zunde : Why don't car seats have more effective safety features, ones that alert a caregiver to the fact that a child has been left in a car seat or vehicle?

"While I do not posses the power under the act to make a recommendation in relation to this matter I consider that the Commonwealth Government should review Australian Design Rules," Ms Hinchey wrote.

While the technology may not be available just yet, there are some strategies parents can follow to ensure their children are not left behind.

Kids and Cars suggest  BE SAFE:

Back seat – Put something in the back seat of your vehicle that requires you to open the door every time you park – cell phone, employee badge, handbag, etc.

Every child should be correctly restrained in the back seat.

Stuffed animal – Keep a stuffed animal in your child's car seat. Place it on the front seat as a reminder when your baby is in the back seat.

Ask your babysitter or child-care provider to call you if your child hasn't arrived on time.

Focus on driving – Avoid cell phone calls and texting while driving.

Every time you park make it a routine to open the back door of your car to check that no one has been left behind. ("Look Before You Lock."