Forgotten Baby Syndrome: What You Should Know

Do you know what forgotten baby syndrome is? In this article, we'll tell you what it is and how we can prevent it. Keep reading!
Forgotten Baby Syndrome: What You Should Know
Mara Amor López

Written and verified by the psychologist Mara Amor López.

Last update: 14 January, 2023

We’re all left speechless by the news that a little one has died after being left in the car. The truth is that forgotten baby syndrome can occur at any time of the year, but it’s most dangerous between the months of April and September. Incredible as it may seem, these events do happen. It’s about little ones who lose their lives when their parents forget them inside their vehicle.

In the vast majority of cases, this happens due to the parents’ forgetfulness, who are usually engrossed in all the pending tasks and daily stress. As a result, it totally slips their minds that they’re carrying the baby in the car. Many people, when they read this kind of news, judge these parents and believe that this could never happen to them. However, the reality is that it could happen to anyone, even the most responsible and organized of parents.

What is forgotten baby syndrome?

This syndrome refers to adults leaving a forgotten baby or toddler in a closed vehicle, which often leads to the child losing their life. It usually occurs when parents think about all the tasks they have to do instead of focusing on what they’re doing at the moment.

There’s no particular profile of parents who are more likely to have this happen to them, but it can affect anyone, regardless of gender, race, education, or personality. It tends to occur most often when parents have a change in their routine or have a lot on their mind while driving.

A baby crying in a carseat.
When a parent has a lot on their mind, they may wander away from the car and forget that their child’s sitting in the back seat. Therefore, the adult’s state of mind can be very dangerous for children who are asleep or quiet inside the vehicle.

How science explains forgotten baby syndrome

For fifteen years, University of South Florida psychology professor and Doctor of Philosophy David Diamond has studied the causes that can lead to forgotten baby syndrome. For him, it’s a matter of memory failure.

“Forgetting a child is not a negligence problem but a memory problem. The most common response is that only bad or negligent parents forget kids in cars. It’s a matter of circumstances. It can happen to everyone.”

– David Diamond –

In this research, from a neurobiological and cognitive point of view, Diamond has produced a paper hypothesizing the reason why this phenomenon may occur. Therefore, these forgetfulnesses could be due to the following causes:

  1. The parent driver loses awareness of the presence of their child in the car.
  2. The driver exhibits prospective memory failure in the brain.
  3. During the trip, various distractions and factors occur that stress the driver and contribute to prospective memory failure.

Thus, Diamond has concluded that in all the studied cases of parents who forgot their children inside their cars, there was a failure in the prospective memory system.

What can we do to avoid this syndrome?

Now that we’ve seen that this can happen to anyone because there’s a probability of memory failure, we can do everything possible to prevent it from happening to us. In short, everything can influence our memory and recall. By taking this into account, we can become aware and carry out certain measures in the form of prevention, such as the following:

  • If we take our child to a daycare center or to a babysitter, we can agree that, when something out of the normal routine happens, we will call each other. For example, if our child isn’t coming to class, we’ll let the teacher know. Then, if the child doesn’t come to class one day, the school will call us to see what’s going on.
  • Put reminders on your cell phone. For example, if there’s a change in our routine, both we and our partners can agree to call each other five minutes after the child enters the daycare center.
  • Help each other with visual reminders. For example, we can place a stuffed animal, their backpack, a little shoe, or anything we can put on the passenger side of the car to remind us that our child is in the car with us.
  • Use apps. These can be helpful to remind us to check the back seat or let us know our child’s still there.
A teddy bear sitting in the seat of a car.
It’s important to accept that there’s a possibility of this happening to anyone, whether it’s due to stress, lack of rest, or another reason. A good idea is to place a stuffed animal in the passenger seat or an object that reminds us that the baby’s inside the car.

The brain can fail us

So, does forgotten baby syndrome only happen to bad parents? The answer is no. As we’ve said, it can happen to anyone, even the most responsible adults. However, although it has to do with memory failure, it doesn’t mean that we have to see it as something normal or accept it. What we need to do is to be more understanding and not be so hard on the parents to whom it has happened and who’ve had to suffer this tragedy.

We mustn’t forget that adults also fail to understand how they could have committed this failure and blame themselves for it all their lives. The fact of the matter is that, as David Diamond said, the brain can also fail us.

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  • Diamond, D. M. (2019). When a child dies of heatstroke after a parent or caretaker unknowingly leaves the child in a car: How does it happen and is it a crime?. Medicine, Science and the Law, 59(2), 115-126.
  • Diamond, D. (2016). An epidemic of children dying in hot cars: a tragedy that can be prevented. The Conversation.

The contents of You Are Mom is for educational and informational purposes only. At no time do they replace the diagnosis, advice, or treatment from a professional. If in doubt, it's best to consult a trusted specialist.