This CAN Happen to You (An In-Depth Look at Pediatric Hot-Car Deaths)

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Photo Credit: Victor Xok on Unsplash

I decided to address a rather dark topic. I realize that people do not want to hear it, particularly mothers, but it’s something that needs to be said. As a regular Facebooker, I see a lot of news stories and people bashing the parents when something like this happens. Please hear me out, as this isn’t a light subject and it’s easy for a message to be misinterpreted.

Kids have been dying because they’re left in a car. The first feedback toward this I witness is “How could they?” “I would never do this.” “I can’t believe they have to leave their phone in the backseat to not forget their child, what kind of society do we live in?” However, the harsh truth is that it can happen to you. It could happen to any parent, literally. And there’s science to back it up.

Imagine this:

It’s a chaotic morning. Your whole house is running late. You accidentally slept in, your baby was up crying half of the night. You have three kids. One needs to go to daycare, one needs to go to preschool, and the other needs to go to elementary school, before you finally go to work. Normally, everyone would have been awake and already at their destinations an hour ago. You’re on auto-pilot, rushing, just trying to get everyone where they need to go. You get your middle child to preschool, and your oldest to elementary, and start heading to work. This is the order that it usually goes, as the preschool and elementary are on your way to work. You get to work, go to get out of the car, but realize your youngest is sleeping in her car-seat in the backseat. This minor moment of realization, literally a two second window when you’re leaving your vehicle, unfortunately doesn’t always happen.

Some mothers go into work. They’re on auto-pilot. It’s routine. We don’t routinely look in our backseat before exiting our vehicle, because we know there’s nothing back there. They toss their keys and phone into their purse and head into work. Some mothers work until 4 PM, and head back out to their car to realize what they’ve done. They’ve killed their precious baby, with an innocent mistake. A mishap. A tiny second of realization. Imagine the guilt. Imagine the utter terror and disgust with yourself. Imagine desperately trying to resuscitate your baby, screaming and crying. You feel so surreal. This couldn’t be happening. You don’t understand how. Now imagine this coming out in a news article, and all people can say is “People like this don’t deserve to have children” or “How could she do this? I would never.” As if you didn’t feel awful enough.

It’s time to put the truth out there and end the thought that only irresponsible parents could do this.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not talking about the parents that left a kid in the car to go to the casino. I’m not talking about the parents or caregivers that left a kid in the car to go do heroin in a sketchy house. I’m not talking about the ones who made the choice to leave their baby in the car. I’m talking about the good mothers that are stressed beyond belief, who have jobs and exhaustion.

NBC News published an article interviewing Dr. David Diamond, who is a professor of psychology at the University of South Florida. Dr. David Diamond is also a neuroscientist who has been studying this very topic since 2004. In the article, Dr. Diamond offers an in-depth scientific explanation of just how the human brain could let a tragic event like this occur. The first factor in forgetfulness, he explained, is the part of your brain called the basal ganglia. This part of the brain works on a subconscious level, or “auto-pilot”. The basal ganglia works separately from the hippocampus, which is the part that deals with conscious, new information, and awareness.

“This is where the systems compete against each other. In the case of you driving home, your basal ganglia wants to get you from Point A to Point B to the point it can suppress your hippocampus. [People] say you can forget to stop at the store, but you don’t forget your child is in the car. I get that feeling completely. I get that argument, but you can’t argue with brain function (NBC News, 2017)”, Dr. Diamond explained. In the article, Dr. Diamond also states, “Any person is capable of forgetting a child.”

In another article published on, Dr. Diamond further elaborates. He says that when the brain automatically assumes you’ve done something, your brain can create a false memory of doing this action. For instance, you routinely lock the front door before you go to bed. One night, while you’re heading to the front door to do that, one of your children asks you for a glass of water. You get them a glass of water and head to bed. Because you had every intention of locking that door, and were interrupted doing so, you automatically thought you did. You wake up the next morning like Why is the front door not locked? I swear I locked it before bed last night. Then, you remember you actually didn’t lock the front door because you got your child a glass of water and forgot to finish locking the door.

Simple distractions can throw your entire memory routine off. For instance, you can miss your freeway exit on a drive you do every single day because you received a phone call while you were driving. Or, you can forget things very easily because your brain is used to a routine. Let’s say you’re about to clock out at work, when you suddenly receive a text from your partner asking you to stop at the store and get them milk. You agree to get the milk, then clock out and get into your car and drive home. You don’t realize that you’ve forgotten to get the milk until you arrive home and see your partner with a bowl of dry cereal. It’s not that our children are less or even of equal importance to milk, it’s that our brains need visual cues to recall something that’s not routine.

Furthermore, Mark McDaniel, PHD, a professor of Psychology and Brain Sciences at the University of Washington at St. Louis, specializing in research of human memory and learning, also agrees that this really can happen to anyone. WebMD’s article about hot-car child deaths cites Mark McDaniel’s stance on the matter.

“The memory is faced with a challenge when it needs to remember something that you don’t do every day, such as take your child to school. For instance, maybe Mom usually does that, but for some reason, Dad takes the task for the day. If the child has fallen asleep in their car seat, which is usually behind the driver’s seat, there is no visual information to remind you that there is a kid to drop off and if you have not done it day in and day out, you need a cue. These are not bad parents, but people who don’t have a good understanding of their memory system (WebMD).”

McDaniel recommends that to prevent this from happening, place your briefcase, or something that you routinely need for work, next to your child in the backseat. Place a brightly colored string on your steering wheel when you have your child in the backseat. Again, it is not that these reminder items are any more “important” than your child, it’s that our brain needs a visual cue to recall recent events, especially events that are out of routine.

So, to the nay-sayers and “perfect parents” of social media: please stop. Stating that this is something that could never happen to you is just simply naïve. Saying that someone is a bad parent because they put a sticker on their door handle to remind them of their child in a rear-facing car-seat is nonsense. This is a safety protocol that I think every busy parent should utilize. If a busy mom tosses her cell phone in the backseat next to her kid to be absolutely certain that the child is not forgotten, this does not mean that this mom loves her cell phone more than her child. This simply means that this mother wants to take precautions because she knows that the human mind is not perfect. This is called being aware and being safe.

As parents, we need to support each other in every safety precaution possible. I cannot fathom why anyone would not support a simple action that could potentially save a child’s life. Since the year 1998, 789 children have died of a vehicular heat-stroke, 46 of them being in 2018 alone. 52% were under the age of 1, and 54% were forgotten by a parent or other caregiver. Most of these deaths have happened in the state of Texas ( Let’s raise each other up, raise awareness of how easily this could happen, and stop the judging.


NBC News – Hot Car Deaths: Scientists Detail Why Parents Forget Their Children – What Happens in Your Brain When Kids are Left in Cars

WebMD – Danger: Kids Left in Hot Cars

Mark McDaniel

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