Much of the world is in the thick of summer, and with all of the fun and good the season brings (swimming! sunshine!) it can also bring tragedy. Inevitably there are stories of babies and toddlers being left in hot cars for too long on summer days. With these stories comes many discussions and commentary on what should or shouldn’t have been done — and what the commenter would have done different. Sarah Tuttle-Singer, social media director for Times of Israel and regular Offbeat Families contributor, recently opened up about the one time she almost forgot her son:
My son was ten days old, my daughter 18 months, and not even shooting espresso straight into my veins could lift the fog that lay over my brain like a cozy, soft blanket.
I was exhausted, like body slammed against the wall exhausted. I had tumbled headfirst into some sort of upside down universe where midnight was the new morning, where my son slept only in my arms and only when I bounced around mumbling a vaguely sanitized version of Snoop Dogg’s Lodi Dodi.
And my daughter was 18 months, and still breastfeeding along side her newborn brother and coping the way most 18-month-olds cope when change is thrust on them:
She wasn’t sleeping, either.
I remember we got back from Coffee Bean, I had to pee, my daughter was crying, my cell phone was ringing, Howard Stern was bleeping his way through a monologue on the radio, and I forgot my son.
It was so easy not to remember the sleeping baby tucked in his rear-facing car seat. It was so easy not to remember that there wasn’t just a wriggling, writhing toddler in the car crying to be fed. It was so easy not to remember to check twice and lift my son from his car seat before locking up and walking into the house. If it weren’t for my breasts, heavy with milk, and prickling with the fire-ant crawl of the letdown reflex, I don’t know if I would have remembered the baby I had met only ten days before.
You can read the rest at Times of Israel.
Comments on What kind of mom forgets her kid in the car on a summer day? This Mom.
I highly recommend this article by Gene Weingarten, especially before judging any of the poor parents in this situation. I found it incredibly eye-opening and Sarah echoes many of the points.
I was just about to post this. It’s an excellent piece of journalism that won the Pulitzer prize, and will definitely challenge your assumptions.
Thanks for the link.
That article haunts me to this day, and we don’t even have kids yet. So, so heartbreaking.
I know that article exists, and I know that it is good. But I have never had the courage to read it.
From the article:
“Memory is a machine,” he says, “and it is not flawless. Our conscious mind prioritizes 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.”
I don’t have kids yet, and I forget my cell phone all the time. So this is terrifying to me.
Be warned, this is an extremely informative and well written article, but I am physically ill halfway through. This kind of stuff could give you nightmares… I don’t even have kids. I used to wonder how someone could leave their kid in a car… this article has changed my opinion. 🙁 I don’t know if I can finish the article, it is making me so sad.
Yeah, I was bawling through basically the whole article. So sad and horrifying and just… tragic.
I’ve been crying for days, anytime I think for more than a few seconds about this article. Heartbreaking, tragic, just horrible. I just… can’t… imagine…
As hard as it was to read I wish everyone would read that article; it will keep parents more aware & hopefully put habits into place to reduce the likelihood of making such a fatal mistake. And it will shed some empathy & help dispel the judgement when these poor people already have to live with the crushing guilt the rest of their lives.
I agree. I was only able to skim the first page (not realizing what it was about), and couldn’t handle any more. With a baby expected in the next 10 weeks, and who knows what mental state my husband and I will be in, well… good to know, but one more thing to have anxiety attacks about. 🙁
Thank you so much for this post. Leaving a baby in a hot car is rarely the result of “shitty parenting” and I get upset when people jump to that conclusion. My mother is a police officer and was able to shed some light when my pregnant naive self made a derogatory comment about terrible parents leaving their kids in the car. I read articles about parents going on trial after their child died in a car, and it’s very humbling. I am a terrible frazzled individual and know I have the capacity to make the same mistake. Thank you again for sharing.
How brave of you to say this. I have often felt that when this type of tragedy happens, people are very quick to point fingers & say “how irresponsible! I would NEVER do something like that!” When the likely fact of the matter is that those parents weren’t terrible parents, but had been distracted, or had another fire to put out. But I think that most people have done something similar- maybe not exactly leaving a child in a car, but something that they caught at the last minute thinking “What could have happened?!” Those are the moments that we should all remember when we are judging each other. As you said in the continuation of the article “There but for the grace of God go I”.
This is one of my biggest fears about becoming a parent. I’m very absent-minded, and the idea of accidentally leaving my child in the car terrifies me. Gene Weingarten’s devastating article (linked above) illustrates just how easy it can be. But he has some advice.
For example, always keep something like a teddy bear in the child’s car seat. When the child is in the seat, the teddy bear goes on the front passenger seat. Also, when you put your baby in the seat, put something you need (like your purse) next to the seat. We also plan to not put the baby in the seat directly behind the driver, and to position a mirror back there so you can see the baby through the rear view mirror.
Parents who intentionally leave their children in the car are reprehensible. But it’s way too easy to accidentally do the same thing, and end up paying a terrible price.
We don’t have a baby yet, and won’t for a while if all goes as planned… but I need to file these tips away for when we do have one. Pretty smart stuff to help prevent an exhaustion-induced tragedy.
I’m also absentminded, especially when I’m tired, and this is a huge fear of mine.
I love all the tips about how to minimise the risks, I will be doing all of them once my Munchkin arrives!
Ditto. I’m not a parent yet, and this forgetting-the-baby thing is one of my biggest fears. Strangely, I’m a certified Child Passenger Safety Technician, so I educate parents on this all the time.
Keep your purse/wallet/phone in the back seat, so that you’re forced to open up the back door when you get out of the car. I liked the author’s suggestion of leaving your shoe in the back seat…no way can you miss that!
Keeping a teddy bear in the car seat that gets moved to the front whenever the baby is with you is a good tip…but I prefer the keychain idea. Get a really big keychain (like keychain teddy bear), which stays in the child’s seat. Whenever the baby goes in their seat, clip the key chain to your car keys. That when as soon as you turn the car off your hand is already on your reminder.
ANOTHER thing to remember is that hyperthermia doesn’t just happen when a child is left behind…more than half of the children that die in hot cars put themselves there. They climb inside the family car (or inside the trunk) to play, and can’t get back out. This is why I’m trying to train my husband to NOT leave the keys in the car in the driveway. Instead, lock your car every time you get out so that children’t CAN’T get inside on their own.
I don’t feel any more sympathetic to a forgetful parent just because we get background information. And I include myself in that.
I’m not sure she’s asking for sympathy. She’s probably trying to stop a little of the judgement though, which is key to the Offbeat Empire. Life is hard sometimes and sometimes we do crappy stuff which we regret immediately/soon after. Judgement doesn’t assist in turn back the clock or undoing anything at all.. nor does sympathy, but judgement hurts more.
Read the Washington Post article – it’s not just being forgetful in many situations like this. There’s actually some brain stuff happening that affects the parent – a change in routine, something distracting going on in their life, that kind of thing.
And as a relatively new mom, I can see how it could happen. But there are ways to prevent it from happening.
And they’re not looking for sympathy — from what I’ve read, they’re looking for people to be aware and to better understand what goes on around the situation without harsh, nasty judgment.
I feel like I am missing something here – the post title makes it sound like she actually forgot her baby and people talk about her being brave for admitting this – but according to the article, nothing actually happened. She didn’t leave her baby in the car.
I get that the parents who make a mistake like that deserve to get to explain how that happens and they definitely have my sympathy. But the title seems misleading
It was the title originally used on the piece. I can add “almost” to it.
Well but, she did forget him. He just didn’t have any adverse effects before she was reminded of him and went back.
My husband does the majority of daycare drop offs and pickups, and he has ADHD. He’s very forgetful. Part of his routine is a script that automatically sends me a text message at each stage of his trip: leaving the house for daycare, arrival at daycare, leaving daycare for work. When I get the third (or if too much time has passed), I call and ask how drop off was. He knows I’m checking up on him, and he’s ok with that because we both know how his memory is.
A few years ago, I read the Washington Post article “Fatal Distraction”. It completely changed my perspective on this issue. Now when I hear people say “What kind of parent would FORGET their own kid??”, I often refer them to this article and remind them that being a loving, attentive parent does not make one immune to distraction and forgetfulness. And lack of sleep or a change in routine can compound this further. When we approach this type of tragic accident with the attitude of “that could never happen to ME” then we fail to take crucial steps to prevent it. I highly recommend all parents and caregivers take a look at this site devoted to kid+car safety: http://www.kidsandcars.org/
PS-Much of this information can apply to pets as well. A hot car is just as dangerous for a dog as it is for a child.
I’m less concerned with leaving the baby in the car, and more concerned with driving while so extremely sleep deprived…. I’m a shift worker, and know and understand that brutal lack-of-sleep-while driving, that makes my response times about as good as being drunk (I’ve had some very scary near accidents, which were only avoided because of my own understanding of my brain’s state post nightshift, and I drive accordingly). We (as a culture) need to rethink this. If you’re so exhausted or distracted as to leave your child in the car, you should also NOT be operating a large metal object that travels at high speeds and kills more people each year than anything else.
This is a good reminder to me that post baby, I will probably take Transit a whole lot more!! 🙂
Your point about sleep deprivation is great (I’m a midwife and a nurse, so I know a lot about sleep deprivation, and as a pregnant person, I know I’m about to learn even more).
That said, I really think we should all read the Washington Post article that won the Pulitzer that everyone is talking about here. The article in today’s Offbeat Families post does focus on her sleep deprivation–remember it’s the mom herself writing and she’s explaining her situation. Distraction/routine disruption and the mental processes involved, which are discussed in the Post article, don’t just arise from sleep deprivation. Relatively well-rested people without 2 kids under age 2 can have this tragedy happen to them, too.
It’s so tempting for us to blame a specific aspect of one story that may have contributed (Some examples I’ve heard over the years: “Well, I would never take a business phone call while my child was in the car–that’s what made him forget his baby.” “Well, I don’t drive when I’m that sleep-deprived, that was the problem.” “Well, it’s always the dads I hear about, never mothers. They just don’t have the same instincts.” “Well, maybe if that person weren’t so disorganized they wouldn’t have forgotten.”) but so necessary to instead find solutions (like safety devices, which car and car seat companies resist due to liability concerns and competing routines, like the shoe/purse/phone/wallet/bear habits). I’m hoping this comments thread can be a place for brainstorming solutions, until carseat and car manufacturers integrate safety features for preventing this.
My car won’t let me lock it with the keyfob if the keys are in the ignition. If a door is open, it locks but beeps twice (and reportedly doesn’t set the alarm). If I could attach something to the car seat that makes the car beep three times, for example, when I try to lock it with the car seat in the car, that would help. Just in case anyone is reading this and can figure out how to do that 🙂
If you read the WaPo article, it describes how some NASA engineers did create just such a device, but couldn’t get it manufactured because companies didn’t want to risk the liability of a malfunction, and most parents (wrongly) believe it would never happen to them. So sad.
One easy life hack you could do is if you have an electronic key, which does not need to go in the ignition, make a pocket or hook on the seat and put your keys in it when you put your kid in the car. Mine beeps if you leave your keys in the car, and that would completely remind me that my kid was still in there too. Husband puts the diaper bag on the passenger seat. I always carry the diaper bag so that won’t work for me.
Speaking from the mother perspective and the lawyer perspective, I do see both sides to the debate. The lawyer side of me gets that it is, usually, legally appropriate to charge people who do this (personally, I don’t agree with manslaughter, which is often what they actually get charged with – I can more understand negligent homicide). On on hand, we live in a society that codifies that parents and caretakers have a duty to their kids – the duty to keep them safe and alive, at the bare minimum. This abrogates that duty. Nobody disputes that children who die this way are killed by their parents – the parents’ act directly leads to the death. No dispute there. So as a lawyer, that part of my brain says that criminal charges are appropriate.
However, the mom part of my brain pulls in the other direction. First, I don’t believe that there is any prison out there could could inflict a worse punishment than what these people must inflict on themselves. I also know that it is possible for anybody to do this. It could happen to me (but I like to think I take steps to prevent it). If it were to happen to me, I think that I’d feel an obligation to be prosecuted. I don’t think people who do this are bad people. But I don’t think there really is such a thing as a bad person overall – or maybe just a few. I don’t think people should judge others that way.
Overall, when I read about stuff like this, I think it speaks to the terrible burden we place on parents. Nobody should be expected to deal with a small child if they are so deprived of sleep, or so overwhelmed or so troubled that they can create such a hole in their memory. That, to me, is a societal failure created by an expectation that parents should do it all – that only parents should care for kids. Would this happen less if parents felt safer in calling on friends, relatives or others to help with childrearing? If it was okay to take a break from your kids now and again? I don’t know, but I do know that it seems like now, the model is unsustainable, and that worries me that more people are having this happen to them because of it.
I highly recommend the Pulitzer Prize winning story, “Fatal Distraction,” by Gene Weingarten. It appeared in The Washington Post Magazine in March 2009. It’s no exaggeration to say that I have been haunted by it ever since. It is a heartbreaking story and extremely difficult to get through, but the behavioral insights it reveals will have you praying, “There, but for the Grace of God” forevermore, whether you believe in a higher power or not.
Oops! It’s been mentioned multiple times. Well, I won’t delete my comment as it’s well worth mentioning again.
I’m reading the article with my 2 month old peacefully sleeping right next to me. This will probably give me nightmares, but I guess it’s important to know that it could really happen to anybody. A good reminder not to judge too quickly, and always take precautions.
OMG that Washington Post article is so hard to read! Don’t read it unless you have enough time to devote to it and are in a safe place to cry. It’s just heartbreaking and horrific. I want to go hug my babies right now but they’re at daycare (at least I hope so since my wife drops them off).
I read it 4 years ago, when it first came out, and haven’t been able to reread it since. But I swear I remember every word. It deserved the Pulitzer, that’s for sure.
I totally agree- it is very hard to read. But so well written.
This happened to us too. Thankfully it wasnt too hot a day and it was only about 10 minutes. We were both mortified that we forgot our new baby boy.
Wow. Powerful subject. Many emotions.
I am uncomfortable with the story and can’t place myself in those shoes.
Leaving my child in the car is my worst nightmare, and I can picture myself doing it. I HAVE pictured myself doing it. That’s why I have a walk around the car EVERY time rule, no matter what. It doesn’t stop me from calling to check up on every single caregiver who has my children in the car, and my son is 4.
I really appreciate this post and all the links to the Fatal Distraction article, which was hard to read but really eye-opening. I don’t have kids yet, but I’m sure I’ve clucked my tongue at these stories before, feeling superior because of course I would NEVER do that. But I realize now that I totally could.
I mentioned this issue to my husband who pointed out that while I am easily distracted, he focuses on things to the exclusion of everything else. I said, “So you would be MORE likely to leave a baby in the car, then.” He said, “Oh. Well, now I’m scared.”
Which is good. Not being scared, necessarily, but being aware that this is a thing that really can happen to anyone.
Good reads, on both accounts. Though I think that the whole stuffed animal idea seems like more work than just checking, double or triple checking, to make sure the kid is out. I’m not sure I, personally, need an extra step. Though I love the idea of keeping my purse (or cell phone) in the back seat.
I think the changes in routine thing is really true…how many times have I accidentally taken my route to work when I’m actually heading to xyz because it’s a day off. Or accidentally getting in the HOV lane on the day I don’t have my kid for daycare. Sleep deprivation and changes in routine are rough!
I just read the Pullitzer-winning “Fatal Distraction” article that has been mentioned a few times here; I’ve been in floods of tears and wanted to stop reading it several times but I forced myself to carry on because I felt I needed to read it all. My son is 18 months, and still doesn’t “sleep through”, plus I work long, early shifts, so I’m usually running on exhausted. It terrifies me to think how easy it could be to have one of those foggy moments that could result in a fatal memory slip. My husband just came in and saw me crying, and I told him about the article. He said, “Well, that would never happen to us,” so I explained to him that every single person in that article thought the same thing. I’ve now insisted that we always keep our son’s changing bag on the passenger seat; it’s something we *usually* do, but not always, so it’s not a reliable signifier as for whether he’s in the car or not. But from now on, we’ll be making sure the bag is visible to act as a reminder, just in case. My heart honestly breaks for all of the parents who have gone through this, and for those poor, poor babies… I’m still crying now. I don’t think I’ll ever forget a word of that article. But, in a way, I’m glad; it’ll make it much harder to forget that this can happen to anyone.
I forgot my daughter in the car once. I had just gone through the drive through of a fast food restaurant (classy, I know, but I was running late for school and didnt have time for a descent meal) and as I pulled away I realized my order was wrong. Pissed (I was running late) I turned around, parked my car, went inside, and demanded they get my order right. While they were correcting it, I began admiring a family in there with kids the same ages as mine. It wasn’t until after they handed me my corrected order that the family’s little baby reminded me that I had my two month old with me, an I had left her in the car!
It had only been a few minutes, and luckily it wasn’t hot out, but I felt like the worst mom in the world.
I work for a major utility, so of course, safety is always our number 1 topic. We recently implemented a program that many others utilities, and other businesses who regularly drive have done. We are required to do a 360 walk around before getting into the vehicle. as a reminder we are also required to place a traffic cone in front and behind the vehicle. so you are really walking around and checking twice.
Something similar could be implemented at home. Just get in the habit of walking around and checking everything. glance at the tires before you leave. look at the mirrors… check the back seat. Do a walk around every time; even when the kids aren’t with. It’s just a good practice in car maintenace anyway. Plus you might see that you didn’t forget a kid, but maybe a bottle of milk fell on the floor or something, last time you went shopping.
I can’t bring myself to read the article – just your reactions are enough to get me teary-eyed. My son is 3 and I have never forgotten him in the car BUT I can totally understand how it can happen, despite our best intentions.
I’ve made sure my 3 year old knows how to get out of the car when all of the doors are locked. It took some patience and many tries but now he knows how to unlock the car. Keeping the windows down so he could see me clearly and hear my instructions as I explained what to do, kept him from freaking out from being alone in the car. He loves to play hide and seek and though I always lock all doors, I can see how he could easily climb in the car and find himself stuck.
I also echo what others have said about sleep deprivation. My son was a micro preemie and I barely had any milk. One night when he was 6 months old I stubbornly decided to try to breastfeed him exclusively. The next morning I was exhausted. We went out for errands; on the way I started a lane change when the idiot behind me accelerated and went for the same lane, cutting me off. I had to swerve back into my lane and solidly hit the car in front. my car was totalled. Thank the heavens for airbags and carseats, my sleeping son woke up long enough to cry then fell back asleep. We didn’t even had a scratch. But I KNOW if had not been exhausted I would have hit the breaks faster and not slammed into the car in front. I was so shell shocked I didn’t buy another car for almost a year, when it became necessary. I’m now very careful not to drive in that state. I’ll take the bus or a cab. Number 2 is arriving in december and I’m already preparing myself for travveling a newborn and fidgety toddler by bus.
I think the really important thing is to not be dismissive and think it just couldn’t happen to you, but to think it could and take preventative measures. If you think it can’t happen, it will be LESS likely to be on your mind, but if you think it could happen you’ll be more likely to run through the possibility in your head. My own mother told me that she knew she was scatter-brained and that she also knew she couldn’t let that risk her children, so she made sure to constantly remind herself to check on us. I’m pretty sure it’s because of her that I can’t close a door without one hand on my pocket touching my keys – which is similar to the habits with purses, teddy-bears, 360-walkarounds, etc., that others suggest developing in this situation.
This is heartbreaking. My grandmother once forgot my dad in his pram outside the post office. This was more than fifty years ago, and times were simpler then, and all that happened was a mad dash back to the post office. No harm done, and it’s a funny story that we tell all the time. It could have been so much worse. Our prime minister (who, although he is an idiot, could reasonably be described as a fully functioning adult) forgot his kid in a pub. No harm done, but…
We need to be talking about this. We need to talk about the things that could have happened, that might happen, and how to prevent them. So thank you for this.
My best way out of this is that I am a freelancer with a random schedule and I don’t have a routine. We don’t drop the kid off at daycare at the same time every day. I don’t have anywhere I drive every day. I don’t have an order I do things in, or the same list of things to do.
I think this helps, because I can’t run on autopilot. It sucks in many other ways to freelance, but I think this is a perk.
I, too, once almost left my son in the car when he was about 4 or 5 months old. I don’t even have an excuse like that the day had been particularly stressful or anything like that; I was just going to buy my husband a uniform for his new job, and I got out of the car and started to head inside when my brother-in-law, who was riding with me for reasons I don’t even remember, goes, “Um, were you planning on leaving the baby in the car?” I was horrified at myself. I would have been in the store for maybe an hour (and I might have remembered him on my own before that), but this was in the mid-afternoon during the height of summer in Texas; an hour is plenty of time to cause severe injury, at the very least. It can happen to literally anyone unless you take specific, active steps to prevent it, which not nearly enough people do.