This is not the first time that this type of drama has taken place in France, but also elsewhere in the world. When it comes to an involuntary forgetfulness of the child in the vehicle, the researchers talk about “forgotten baby syndrome”.
A 14-month-old baby was found dead Monday in a car in Saint-Nazaire. His father, who forgot the child’s presence in the car, went straight to work and left the child in the vehicle. It was the mother who alerted at the end of the day when she had gone to pick up the little one in the daycare. Help was called, but unfortunately it was too late for the child.
This is not the first time that this type of drama has taken place in France. Last October, a similar story happened to parents in Martinique. And every time the same question arises: how is it possible for a parent to forget their baby in a car?
An almost always identical scenario
Neurologists and psychologists have been working on this issue for several years and talk about “forgotten baby syndrome”.
“The forgotten baby syndrome defines the phenomenon of forgetting a child in a parked vehicle,” explain researchers in an Italian study on the subject published in 2020, which notes “significant consequences for the parent, family and society.”
In France, the Consumer Safety Commission issued a statement on the subject in 2009, stating that this syndrome associated with “forgetting a child in a motor vehicle” is “characterized by the almost always identical scenario of the parent going to work,” forgets to drop off her child at the nanny or nursery ”.
The child – the vast majority of the time a baby under three years – is discovered several hours later, suffering from severe dehydration, hyperthermia or hypothermia, depending on the weather, which can cause psychological damage, but also significant brain damage. In some cases, this leads to the death of the child.
“The thermal regulation of young children is not adapted to extreme temperatures,” the 2009 statement said. Left in a vehicle, their body temperature can rise three to five times faster than that of an adult. “
“Action of indifferent or negligent parents”
With this syndrome, we are talking about an involuntary forgetfulness of the person in charge of the child, not about a baby who is left voluntarily in a car while shopping or taking certain steps.
There are currently few figures on this topic. The Consumer Safety Commission had registered that between June 2007 and August 2009 in France, 26 accidents with children left in cars had taken place, which had resulted in 7 deaths. Most of them were children under 3 years of age. Of these 26 cases, 11 were due to the complete supervision of those responsible for the baby (either a priori a forgotten baby syndrome) and 14 in a so-called “voluntary” situation.
“On average, 37 children die from hyperthermia inside parked vehicles each year in the United States,” says a April 2020 study published in Paediatrics & Child Health.
“The majority of cases are due to caregiver forgetfulness (about 55%), while about 13% are due to deliberately leaving children unattended, and about 28% occur when children climb into unlocked vehicles”.
In terms of involuntary forgetfulness, “in most cases, these episodes concern adults whose mental and cognitive functions are perfectly intact,” the Italian study notes. “In the vast majority of cases, it was not the action of indifferent or negligent parents,” also wrote in 2016 in The conversation David Diamond, professor of psychology and expert in neuroscience, specialist in this subject.
“habitual memory” and “forward-looking memory”
Lui has developed the hypothesis that this type of failure is “the result of a competition between the brain’s ‘habitual memory’ system” – ie. registered routines, such as going to work – “and its’ prospective memory ‘system'”, ie. reminder of what we need to do in the future, about the tasks to be performed later. And in some cases, according to his observations, “masters the habitual memory system.”
“In the case of a child to be handed over to his nanny or in the nursery, the forgetfulness affects the ‘potential’ memory,” the Consumer Safety Commission states.
It is a memory “particularly fragile, its informative content is low, but its implementation is complex. It presupposes, on the one hand, to remember an action that is conceptualized and not lived, even if it is routine elsewhere, and on it on the other hand, the emergence of this memorization in the consciousness of the adult coincides with the moment at which this operation is to be performed.
We tend to say ‘that kind of thing would not happen to me’, but it can happen to anyone because the father at that moment is in a state of hypnosis, a state of autopilot where it is the unconscious, who takes control, and that’s why it does not actually realize, ”Ilana Waserscztajn, clinical psychologist, explained on BFMTV on Thursday.
“This father, he forgot his child, as he forgot himself,” she continues.
This memory of the future can be changed for several reasons, according to David Diamond: a change in the parent’s routine, for example in the usual route, or a change in the child’s behavior on the day, which, for example, is quieter than normal or falls asleep.
In responsible adults, “stressors and sleep deprivation are important,” he also points out, “because they are known to influence cerebral memory systems toward habit-based activity and impair processing.
What actions should one take?
As early as 2009, the Consumer Safety Commission called on public authorities to improve information on the risk of forgetting their child in the car and the dangers to the child.
Communication campaigns to avoid other tragedies have been launched in some countries. In 2019, a law was passed in Italy – after several deaths of babies in cars – making it mandatory for parents to have car seats ringing when the driver leaves the vehicle, to remind them that the child is still on board. . There are many such systems today.
Thus, the Israeli Ministry of Health, for its part, is developing an application that recognizes when the driver leaves the vehicle, or an entire battery of sensor systems, that warns the person leaving a car that the baby is still on board.
On its website, the Renfrew County Family and Children’s Services (Ontario, Canada) recommends placing your bag or laptop in the back of the vehicle, next to the baby, to open the back doors of the car before you leave it. On the other hand, if you ever see a child who appears to be in difficulty alone in a parked car, do not hesitate to contact the emergency services.