Baby? What Baby? We Have A Baby?

Sleep Like A Baby
Forgettable? Really? Image by peasap via Flickr

Maybe this is why I didn’t have kids.

Two stories from today’s New York Times on people who forget they have babies, one from South Korea, one from the U.S.. In South Korea, Internet gaming addiction is a national problem:

Neither had a job. They were shy and had never dated anyone until they met through an online chat site in 2008. They married, but they knew so little about childbearing that the 25-year-old woman did not know when her baby was due until her water broke.

But in the fantasy world of Internet gaming, they were masters of all they encountered, swashbuckling adventurers exploring mythical lands and slaying monsters. Every evening, the couple, Kim Yun-jeong and her husband, Kim Jae-beom, 41, left their one-room apartment for an all-night Internet cafe where they role-played, often until dawn. Each one raised a virtual daughter, who followed them everywhere, and was fed, dressed and cuddled — all with a few clicks of the mouse.

On the morning of Sept. 24 last year, they returned home after a 12-hour game session to find their actual daughter, a 3-month-old named Sa-rang — love in Korean — dead, shriveled with malnutrition.

In South Korea, one of the world’s most wired societies, addiction to online games has long been treated as a teenage affliction. But the Kims’ case has drawn attention to the growing problem here of Internet game addiction among adults.

And, from the Times’ automotive section:

INFANTS or young children left inside a vehicle can die of hyperthermia in a few hours, even when the temperature outside is not especially hot. It is a tragedy that kills about 30 children a year, according to the National Safety Council.

Making the deaths all the more tragic, perhaps, is that many are a result of forgetfulness rather than neglect, occurring when distracted but otherwise responsible parents or caretakers inadvertently leave a child in the car.

Newspaper articles and campaigns by safety advocates had brought some attention to the problem, but its visibility grew when a March 2009 article by Gene Weingarten in The Washington Post Magazine, “Fatal Distraction,” asked whether the mistake of forgetting a child in the back seat of a car was also a crime. The article won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for feature writing…

Janette Fennell is the founder and president of, a safety advocacy group based in Leawood, Kan., that focuses on issues involving children and automobiles. In a telephone interview, Ms. Fennell made her view clear, saying she believed that carmakers must develop reminder devices to warn drivers if a child is left behind.

I’m not buying this. Now the car has to remind you you have kids? That’s the car’s responsibility?

You accidentally cook your baby — the Times‘, typically obliquely and too-politely calls this “hyperthermia”, — in the back of your vehicle on a hot summer’s day because….you forgot s/he was there?

Babies travel in carseats. Those carseats are heavy and bulky and demand your full attention as you buckle and strap your baby into them, and into your vehicle. When you exit the vehicle to do your urgent errands on a hot day, wear the baby in a sling or put the kid(s) in a stroller and remove them from the car. This is complicated? Yes, it takes time and energy. You chose to have kids, right?

If you’re so tired you forget you have a baby in your own vehicle, you’re in no shape to be driving. Nothing you need to get in a car with your kids and drive to obtain is that urgent — drugstores can deliver medicine and you can buy food and do your banking on-line.

How, exactly, do you forget you have a baby?

20 thoughts on “Baby? What Baby? We Have A Baby?

  1. Thomas Medlicott

    It happens all the time in SoCal, in fact, the babyqueing season is approaching. Typically, someone goes in a store and doesn’t want to hassle slinging a kid. They think “I’ll only be a minute.” That minute turns into an hour or two. If you wanted to take the time, you could easily “profile” the perpetrator of leaving a kid in a car to cook – but I’ll say that it runs the socio-economic gamut. A lot of dead dogs because of this too. Maybe Forbes can pitch the car alarm in their tech section. Tom Medlicott

  2. tanuki

    While I never personally left my baby alone in the car for even a minute, it didn’t take long after I became a parent to see how easily one of these accidents can occur. In our society’s quest to strap the baby into the family car better than a NASCAR driver we have turned them into luggage.

    The infant faces the rear in the back seat and is deep in what is effectively a little box. Unless you set up an elaborate system of mirrors (which I did) you can’t even see the baby from the driver’s seat.

    My heart goes out to those parents who get out of their usual routine and forget the sleeping baby is back there. If there had been a car seat reminder alarm available at Babies R Us I would have bought it

  3. Caitlin Kelly

    Seems to me someone could earn a small fortune with a cheap, low-tech solution — a laminated hangtag you slap onto the rearview mirror to remind you there is a child behind you.

    A post it or even a piece of duct tape on the dashboard — any sort of visual cue right where the driver’s eyes are.

    A kitchen alarm set on your cellphone or Itouch…there are many less costly fixes to this.

  4. jake brodsky

    With the birth of each my three children, I had particularly strong memories driving home from the hospital with my new daughter or son in the back of the car and a new life to take care of.

    I have always had an awareness of that extra person in the back seat, particularly when they were infants, unable to get themselves out of the car. Even in the haze of pain from a kidney stone (that hit as I got home from the grocery store one evening), I somehow found it in me to unlatch my infant daughter’s car seat, and drag her in to the house instead of leaving her in the cold outside.

    The only way I can describe this “Baby? What Baby?” syndrome, is that it must be the result of a terrible addiction. Like you Caitlin, I can’t imagine how anyone might not remember their kids are with them.

  5. Caitlin Kelly

    jake, I wonder if (?) this is some new trend I simply don’t understand…attention deficit disorder? The result of continuous partial attention or being so overwhelmed or distracted 24/7 by PDAs and cellphones that the simple (?) act of memory, focus and paying attention is somehow too difficult?

    You choose to have kids. You choose, perhaps, to have a dog — which will also die in an unheated or overheated car. You make the choice and you are responsible for it.

  6. lizskoski

    I feel compelled to comment because, like you and many others, I was also of the “how do you forget a baby in a car?” mindset. I supposed you could forget for five minutes, but for an entire day? Long enough that your baby dies? No, that was for people who couldn’t be bothered with the rigors of raising a child.

    However, after reading the article in The Washington Post, I had to reevaluate my snap judgment. The article explains, much more eloquently and accurately than I can, how the human mind works. Suffice to say, it’s a complex system of routines, responses to stress, and a myriad of other factors. When things go just wrong in that precious space in the memory where routine lies…the results can be tragic. It’s not a black-and-white matter of simply being irresponsible or uncaring parents.

    After reading the article, the science behind how this could happen to even the most responsible, loving parents, I feel I can no just throw my hands up and exclaim “Well, I would never do that!” Though the circumstances make it easy to claim the moral high ground (“MY baby was never left in the car”), I would encourage everyone to scrounge up a little humility and realize that there a faults within us, biologically, emotionally, and psychologically, that no one is completely immune to. Take a second look at that Washington Post piece, it provides an informative and heartbreaking perspective on a tragedy that everyone assumes they are above, until it happens.

  7. inmyhumbleopinion

    I don’t get it either. I remember the first five years of each of my kids’ lives as being ones of hyper-vigilance, and to this day my son tells me I worry too much. I’m about to hand him the keys to a car in five months when he gets his license and secretly wonder if it’s too soon.

    Now, that said, I’ve heard stories where it’s generally one parents’ responsibility to take the kid to daycare, but because of a doctor appointment or some other routine-breaking commitment, the other parent takes the kid but then goes on auto-pilot, forgetting the kid is with them. No excuse, of course, but still insanely heart-breaking when it happens. The anguish those parents face when the realization hits is pretty excruciating.

  8. Caitlin Kelly

    IMHO, the principle is the same; if you are truly that distracted, what on earth are you doing? I know people can be busy, but that busy?

    1. inmyhumbleopinion

      No, you’re right and this is why we have laws like criminal negligence. You can’t say “oops” when someone has lost their life because of your exhaustion/stupidity/I-thought-you-had-the-baby mistakes. It’s not intentional, but it’s still a crime.

  9. Caitlin Kelly

    It’s one of the reasons I did not have kids. I am a workaholic and know my limits. I wish others did as well.

  10. reba

    I remember reading an article last summer about a mother who lost her baby this way. The article was truly unbelievable and left me thinking “if it could happen to her it could happen to anyone.” The author had a great suggestion to prevent this– leave your purse next to the baby when you strap her in. Apparently women never leave a car without their purse.

  11. Caitlin Kelly

    I doubt it would work. If you are that distracted, exhausted or overwhelmed, as I said in my post, you should not be driving nor responsible for the life of a child.

  12. stagemanager

    In a 12-year period from 1998-2009, vehicular hyperthermia was the cause of 443 deaths. Only 228 of those deaths, or 51 per cent, were attributed to forgetfulness by caregivers, according to a fact sheet compiled by Jan Null, adjunct professor of meteorology at San Francisco State University at

    Without question, parents bear personal responsibility for their children’s safety. Prevention of such tragedies through public awareness campaigns, powerful media articles such as Gene Weingarten’s, and technological advances in the automobile industry, should be applauded rather than dismissed.

    Parents, however, are not alone in their responsibilities when it comes to preventable automobile-related deaths. The number of hyperthermia incidents pales in comparison to the number of accidents caused by driver drowsiness and distraction.

    From about the dangers of drowsy driving: “People run a higher risk of succumbing to driver fatigue between 2am and 6am and during what is known as the “2pm slump”. Studies show the number of accidents increase according to the time of day and the number of hours driven. High risk occupations include night-shift workers, airline crew, students, commercial drivers, medical staff, sales representatives and journalists.”

    My partner, who is often sleep-deprived, is a journalist whose income depends on getting the story, no matter what the hour. I worry for my partner’s safety as well as others.

    Let’s not forget our collective responsibilities as a society to promote healthy lifestyles and reasonable workplace expectations. A good night’s sleep can prevent many automobile injuries and deaths, perhaps even some vehicular hyperthermia cases.

    A forgotten baby makes the headlines, but how can we allow ourselves to be desensitized to “routine” car crashes and the underlying causes?

  13. Caitlin Kelly

    I agree. There have been some stories published about workers who were sleep-deprived and who crashed as a result. The culture demands work first, human needs second.

  14. compassion

    Ms. Kelly,
    I understand it would be difficult to comprehend these horrifying tragedies. I also found it offensive at first glance. However, I have worked in child safety for 5 yrs now and have personally interacted with parents who have inadvertently forgotten their child. I have heard the guilt in their voices and seen the deep, everlasting anguish in their eyes. They ARE good parents. I absolutely kills me when I hear people passing judgement on an issue they have not taken the time to fully educate themselves about. You are correct, parental responsibility is key to preventing these tragedies. However, parents…it is CRITICAL that we be honest with ourselves, NOBODY is perfect. We do not have eyes in the back of our head. We ARE constantly fatigued. Our brains are human, just like us and we are NOT perfect. There is not one person out there who can place themselves above doing something like this. And for those of you who do, you are placing yourself at a much greater risk. I beg and plead with every parent in the world to learn more about these tragedies. I challenge you to put yourself in the shoes of the forever changed care givers who have gone through this and try to understand.
    An interesting correlation: as soon as children were placed in the back seat and in rear facing child seats the number of children being forgotten in vehicles sky rocketed while the number of air bag deaths went down significantly. IF this was simply an issue of “bad parenting” these tragedies would have been happening long before the front to back seat change. Numbers don’t lie, facts are facts. PLEASE, my god, show some compassion, get off your high horse. EVERYONE makes horrible mistakes including YOU Ms. Kelly!

  15. Caitlin Kelly

    I’m usually the biggest bleeding heart on the block, so compassion is not, typically, something I lack.

    Since you bring expertise to this issue, can you explain a few things? Seriously.

    1) How much time elapses (has this been studied?) between when a child is placed in a back seat and when the parent forgets they placed the child there? i.e. less than 60 minutes? Is there any pattern to these occurrences that might create effective preventive measures?

    2) Is there any co-relation between the age of the child (i.e. how exhausted and sleep-deprived the parent is who has left a child behind) and these events? Does it happen more to children under a certain age or weight or size?

    3) When parents are asked how this happened — what explanation do they offer? If they are, as you say — and I said in my original post — SO exhausted, they should not be driving at all! What is so urgent a demand that cannot wait or they cannot get a cab or a friend or neighbor or relative to drive them to that *urgent* appointment? Groceries, diapers and medicine can all be delivered; unless it’s a medical emergency requiring you get into your own car with this child in its carseat, how about a nap until you are safe behind the wheel?

    I rarely make horrible mistakes, actually. I was often responsible for dealing, alone, with medical professionals and other officials around the world when one of my relatives, who lived and traveled alone was ill, or worse. I was responsible, and on my own in foreign countries at times, at an early age for her, so don’t have much patience for those who can’t handle the responsibilities they have chosen.

    Accidents happen; vigilance and self-discipline can, and do, prevent many of them.

    1. compassion

      I would like to start by saying I apologize if I came off abrasive. I get pretty worked up on this particular issue, which I know is incredibly difficult to understand. Gene Weingarten’s “Fatal Distraction” would provide the best answers for your questions. It is a heart-wrenching article, but I do believe that it has the influence to open the eyes of those who just can’t wrap their head around this.

      How much time elapses (has this been studied?) between when a child is placed in a back seat and when the parent forgets they placed the child there?

      I am not aware of any data on how much time elapses between when a child is placed in the back seat and when the parent forgets they placed the child there.

      Is there any pattern to these occurrences that might create effective preventive measures?

      There are several patterns, but paramount is the fact that our brains are not keeping up with the demands of our busy lives. A combination of a lack of sleep, stress, emotion, and change of routine are often contributing factors in memory failure. Although we can not rewire the human brain, we can educate parents and push for technology in vehicles. A group called is pushing for seat belt reminders in all seats in all vehicles. Think about this, why do we have them in front seats, not back seats? Isn’t that where our most precious passengers are? If these were mandatory, it would only be a matter of crossing some wires to create an alarm if a child was left in a vehicle. The auto industry knows that we are not perfect, that is why we get a light for low fuel, a beep for an unbuckled seat belt, a flashing warning on our dash for a low battery. Who decided that a dead battery was more important than a dead baby?
      Many “commenters” believe that this is related to socioeconomic status. NOPE. The wealthy do it, and the poor, and the middle class. Care givers of all races, ethnicities, and ages. It’s happened to a dentist, scientist, professor, social worker, nurse, construction worker, mental health counselor, rabbinical student, principle, pediatrician, clergyman, and even a police officer. All were educated, caring parents.

      Is there any co-relation between the age of the child and these events? Does it happen more to children under a certain age or weight or size?

      These tragedies most frequently happen to infants and young toddlers. (still in car seats)

      When parents are asked how this happened — what explanation do they offer?

      I can not say what explanation they offer. I have not heard one person who forgot a child be able to really explain; they are dumbfounded, confused, lost. They have no explanation because their brain told them they dropped the baby off or whoever normally does did it. It is not uncommon for parents to go to day care after work to pick the child up, only to realize the child was still in the vehicle. When children are left behind, researchers believe that competing interests are at play in three parts of the brain: the basal ganglia, hippocampus and prefrontal cortex. The basal ganglia remembers and enacts the familiar and routine, enabling you to do things as if on autopilot. The hippocampus holds our immediate memories and the prefrontal cortex is responsible for thinking and analyzing. When things run smoothly, the brain – and therefore the person – can multi-task fairly well. But add stress, sleep deprivation, change in routine, and/or distractions and the ability to multi-task is diminished. Then the basal ganglia dominates, meaning the person continues on auto-pilot, with less access to immediate memory. This is science, facts, black and white, not grey, not up for discussion. (* I would like to note that there is always exceptions. There are a very small number of people who knowingly left a child who died. Also, a little less than 1/3 of these cases involve children who have been playing unsupervised in or around cars and become trapped with deadly consequences. Some of these children are unable to use the lock system or door releases to open the doors.)

      These tragedies have increased 10-fold since car seats were moved to the backseat. This does not mean it is safe to place children in the front seat, but it does mean that, out of sight, has sometimes meant “out of mind” – with tragic results. Babies are notorious for falling asleep quickly in vehicles, becoming silent passengers, unseen by the driver.

      What is so urgent a demand that cannot wait or they cannot get a cab or a friend or neighbor or relative to drive them to that *urgent* appointment? Groceries, diapers and medicine can all be delivered; unless it’s a medical emergency requiring you get into your own car with this child in its carseat, how about a nap until you are safe behind the wheel?

      It is not a sense of urgency for appointments, errands, work, etc.. Parents realize when they are fatigued, but most are not aware of the extreme effect that this can have. It is critical that parents are informed & aware of how stress, sleep, etc… effects their functionality.

      It is wonderful that you “rarely make horrible mistakes,” but I am sure you have made at least one in your life. Well, guess what, that is all it takes. One horrible mistake.

      For the doting parents who have lost a child in this manor (that I know), their children were their everything. Their lives have forever changed. They have lost the absolute most important thing in their world! Can you imagine the devastation, confusion, disgust, guilt that they must feel? How about when they read articles, like the one you wrote? If everyone re-routed their “blame game” efforts toward education and prevention, just imagine how many lives could be saved. I know of over 400 children that would be alive today had there been some sort of warning device inside the vehicle or perhaps if the one who forgot them would have only known it was possible for them to do so. So, I chose to put my heart & soul into protecting these children, understanding why and how, and coming up with solutions so that NOT ONE MORE child has to die in a hot vehicle. I challenge you to sit down with Fatal Distraction and be open to a change of mind.

  16. Caitlin Kelly

    Thanks for taking the time to explain this in such detail. It will teach many readers more about the issue.

    I *have* been so tired I could barely function; I was, luckily, not at that point responsible for the safety or life of a child or another human being.

    I will not argue the point with you. I take your point.

    But it is absurd to suggest that a parent is so tired they are dropping from exhaustion and have **no idea** that their body or behavior or judgment or cognition are thereby impaired.

    I have never had a baby and yet it’s pretty clear to me that new mothers (and fathers) who are that sleep-deprived (let alone working and or caring for other kids and/or commuting) are placing everyone at risk if they fail to get enough sleep. No one can function safely or wisely when they are not rested.

    Why is this basic health issue so opaque?

    1. compassion

      Ms. Kelly,

      I know I went on a bit of a rant, again, I apologize. I see the society we live in pushing, not only parents, but everyone to do more and more and more. As I am sure you know, very few people in this world are awarded the luxury of being able to get a healthy 8 hrs of sleep every night. We all go through our lives doing the best we can with the hands we’ve been dealt. My hope is that everyone who reads this, including yourself and I, come out of it with a better awareness that these things do happen. I just got word of the 8th vehicular hyperthermia death this year. PLEASE everyone keep your eyes peeled for children (& pets) alone in vehicles everytime your out & about. ALWAYS keep your car doors locked, even at your own home. 3 children have died in the last week from crawling into a locked vehicle and not being able to get out.
      Thank you again Ms. Kelly for sharing your thoughts. It is so important in the line of work I do to understand how others feel about these types of incidents. Parent responsibility is NEVER out of the question. Parents, please be aware & honest with yourselves about your mental/physical state of being, it truly could save a life. Set reminders on your phone/calendar for when you arrive at work. Make a deal with your spouse & day care providers that you keep good communication on the whereabouts of your children. Have the day care call you immediately if your child does not show up. Do whatever it takes because nobody ever wants to know the pain that these families have felt.

  17. Caitlin Kelly

    Well, now I am aware of it — I passed an SUV today (I live in a suburb of NYC and it is 85 degrees here today) — and saw a simple, cheap solution you have not mentioned; a convex mirror on the seat back *facing* the interior of the carseat so it is immediately apparent to the driver if the seat is full or empty.

    One of the reasons I did not have kids is my need for 8-9 hours’ sleep to function at my best. I get it every night and have for years.

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