Forgotten Baby Syndrome: Neglect or Forgetfulness?

A hand buckles baby into carseatThe tragic story of Cooper Harris, a Georgia toddler whose father left him in a hot car all day, has yielded a criminal prosecution and a national debate about kids and cars. Some media pundits and parenting experts have pointed to so-called “forgotten baby syndrome.” Forgotten baby syndrome isn’t an actual disease or mental health condition that you’ll find listed in psychiatry’s bible, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM). However, the fact that 623 children have died of heat stroke in hot cars on warm days since 1998 suggests that forgetting children in cars is a real problem.

Why Parents Forget Their Children

Most parents now put their children in the backseat, with babies facing the rear, to minimize their risks of injury in a car accident. This positive parenting practice, though, means that parents may not interact with their children during a car ride and that they may not even be able to see their children. The tendency of most parents to be overwhelmed and distracted increases the chances that a child in the backseat will slip the parent’s mind.

When we drive our cars, prepare food, and complete other routine, everyday tasks, our brains go into auto-pilot. This means many parents are not consciously thinking about their children while driving them to and from daycare or activities, instead they may be thinking through the day to come. And deviating from a standard routine makes it easy to forget that the child is there at all. One recent study found that 11% of all parents have forgotten their children, and 1 in 4 parents of children under age 3 have accidentally left their child in a car.

How to Avoid Forgetting Your Child

If you’re concerned about forgetting your child, the key is to jar your brain out of auto-pilot. When something’s out of place, it’s hard for your mind to continue working unconsciously. Put something that is an integral part of your daily routine— such as one shoe, your laptop, purse, or office keys—in the backseat. As you get out of the car, you’ll notice you’re missing something, even if you’re not thinking about your child. And once you notice the missing item, you’ll discover the item and your child in the backseat. 

References:

  1. Null, Jan. (2014). Heatstroke Deaths of Children in Vehicles. Department of Earth and Climate Sciences, San Francisco State University. Retrieved from http://www.ggweather.com/heat/
  2. Martin, L. (2012, March 12). Forgotten baby syndrome. MailOnline. Retrieved from http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-2113440/Forgotten-baby-syndrome-It-unthinkable–accidentally-leaving-baby-hours-lots-busy-parents-devastating-consequences.html
  3. Payne, M. (2014, July 16). Shoe trick will prevent child deaths in hot cars. News-press.com. Retrieved from http://www.news-press.com/story/news/investigations/melanie-payne/2014/06/20/tell-mel-neverleft-campaign/11102697/ 

© Copyright 2014 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • 14 comments
  • Leave a Comment
  • Cassidy

    Cassidy

    July 17th, 2014 at 12:40 PM

    Stories like this truly do break my heart.
    I am not sure what the parents are thinking or if they are even thinking, and I am astounded how you can go into that zone where you seemingly just forget about your child. I know that there have been times when I have forgotten to run by the store on my home or to drop off some library book, but I am sorry, my child would not be something that I could forget about! And how do you not even at least glance back into your car? I always kind of check things out to make sure doors are locked and things like that so how do you miss them even then? I am not trying to be critical because we all mistakes and get into our own little worlds but stories like this are such tragedies that could be so easily prevented that it amazes me that they keep happening over and over again.

  • josie

    josie

    July 28th, 2018 at 9:57 PM

    So people would not forget a purse or a shoe, but yes their child????

  • laurel

    laurel

    July 18th, 2014 at 9:10 AM

    I really can’t say that I know what goes through the mind of someone who would do this. What on earth could you possibly be thinking about that would be more important than your child that you are leaving in the car? Things like this can often boggle the mind

  • Ellen

    Ellen

    July 20th, 2014 at 5:43 AM

    Thankfully I have not been in this type of scenario where I have so many other things going on that I would forget my baby in the car.
    I know it can happen, we all get stressed, but this just souunds like plain and simple forgetfulness to me, not having your head where it should be when you are caring for a child.
    Unfortunately there are times where this sort of forgetfulness can cause horiffic consequences as we have all seen recently. You just can’t be thinking of anything else or allowing other things to be more important when you are caring for your child.

  • jim r.

    jim r.

    July 21st, 2014 at 10:44 AM

    This is abuse and this is neglect, plain and simple. How would you like to be left in a hot care with no means to get out? Wouldn’t feel too great would it? I know we all have other responsibilites but shouldn’t everything else kind of fall away in importance when you have the care of your child in your hands? I eman, come on, this is not rocket science. You are singing to your kid in the care, making funny faces in the mirror, engaging with them- how do you then just say oops, I forgot he was in here? Does not make any sense at all.

  • Agreed

    Agreed

    July 23rd, 2014 at 1:19 AM

    They have obviously forgotten about reality and remembered their pockets!

  • Jock

    Jock

    July 23rd, 2014 at 1:40 AM

    What an absolute cop out!i heard this today and could not believe what I saw.Any doctor or lawyer who believes this has forgotten reality and remembered their pockets.!! Next they will be saying if you leave your front door open it’s ok’d to be robbed.,😡

  • Jack S

    Jack S

    August 15th, 2014 at 9:36 AM

    Have you every breezed through a traffic light and thought, “Was that green?” or through an intersection and thought “Was there a stop sign?”. Or better yet, “Did I leave the iron/curling iron/coffee pot on?” “Did I close the garage door?” “Did I close that window before I left?”… They’re called Rote Actions. Things you do every day, but sometimes forget if you did them. Look up the term, Rote Actions or Rote Memory. Yes, this is a much more serious case, but when you always take your child out of the car, it becomes a natural habit. Just like turning off the iron, closing the garage door, or going through a familiar intersection. It becomes so normal that you do it without thinking. And sometimes you forget. I would far trust the psychological community before I relied on my own understanding about how/why the brain does what it does.

  • Alec W

    Alec W

    July 29th, 2014 at 9:30 AM

    I’m 63 and thought I’d heard everything. I guess not. FBS (forgotten baby syndrome) is now gaining acceptance as an excuse for being a monster. I suppose that, in the future, people who forget to feed and water their pets until their ribs are showing aren’t monsters either. They’re just “victims” of FPS (forgotten pet syndrome). And people who leave their homes but leave their irons and hotplates operational aren’t idiots too stupid to be a homeowner. They’re just victims of FAS (forgotten appliance syndrome).

    In truth, I believe that our biggest problem is FRS (forgotten responsibility syndrome) … and that the search for “excuses” to explain away irresponsibility just don’t cut the mustard. And on forgotten baby syndrome, the “height” of irresponsibility, I think FBS stands for FULL OF BS syndrome.

  • Paul

    Paul

    July 30th, 2019 at 7:58 AM

    I adopted a diabetic kitten years ago, and have cared for this pet like my own child … if not better. This has included play, feeding, insulin shots, grooming, vet visits .. you get the drift. His diabetes has since self-cured under my care. One day, prior to a 4 day roadtrip, I put out all meals (dry food), water, toys and even turned the fan on for my cat to stay engaged when I was away. I got in my car and left; believing that my cat is comfortable and safe. 4 days later, upon my return, i came to realize that I had left the cat in the garage with no access to the house. Luckily the cat was alive and healthy … but I just did not understand how that came to be. What I think happened was that he had slipped into the garage as I was preparing to leave … and I didn’t care to check because I had seen him in the house. So yes, I do agree that the “Forgotten Baby Syndrome” is real. Parents and care-givers should be educated about it, and given tips to be more aware of it. One thing that may help is installing a reflective mirror in the backseat … which helps the parent (driver) see their baby in the backseat.

  • Alec W

    Alec W

    September 21st, 2014 at 10:35 PM

    Jack S. – Let me ask you a question. If I was caught red-handed leaving a pet in a hot car – and if the pet died – wouldn’t I be arrested for animal abuse? And when I stood up in front of a judge, would he accept the “forgotten pet syndrome” excuse and let me off scot free?

    When “life” is at stake (human or otherwise), we are held to a higher level of responsibility. And when it comes to human life, there are only two legal options to deal with irresponsibility – “reckless endangerment” (if the baby lives) or “negligent homicide” (if the baby dies). This is assuming human life has a greater value than the life of a pet.

  • Alec W

    Alec W

    September 23rd, 2014 at 9:28 AM

    One final thought. Let’s assume the court system “buys” the FBS argument to mitigate a case of reckless endangerment or negligent homicide. How long would it be before sleazeball parents who don’t really care started using the SAME argument? Do we really want to open up this Pandora’s box?

  • chels

    chels

    April 16th, 2015 at 3:38 PM

    take it that if this situation had happened in south auckland,the mother was a maori who was on dpb benefit,shell be convicted smartly..without the fbs excuses..just saying.

  • Andrew

    Andrew

    March 22nd, 2017 at 4:00 AM

    Sorry can’t accept that…mental illness is a good defence ..perhaps responsibility should be accountable

Leave a Comment

By commenting you acknowledge acceptance of GoodTherapy.org's Terms and Conditions of Use.

* Indicates required field.

GoodTherapy uses cookies to personalize content and ads to provide better services for our users and to analyze our traffic. By continuing to use this site you consent to our cookies.