Had the temperature been a few degrees higher, had the sun passed farther across the sky, Tuesday August 18, 2015, could have meant something entirely different to Annie. It could have meant a lifetime of grief, of heartache.
Instead it meant flashbacks, searing guilt. But also a saved life – her child’s.
The Aussie mum had inadvertently left her baby daughter locked inside her car for five hours while she was at work. Her mind told her she had dropped the little girl at daycare. But when she returned to her vehicle to retrieve something during the day, there she was, still strapped into her child seat.
Annie contacted Mamamia shortly after the incident to share a word of warning for other parents and guardians: “I had heard of this happening to other parents before and [I had] judged them, saying, ‘How could anyone forget their child’. I now know exactly how it can happen to anyone.”
Annie’s is an eerily familiar story, one that’s been told in the press many times before and since, albeit often with a more tragic ending.
The 22-month-old's mother, Romy, had arrived at their local childcare centre to collect him on the afternoon of February 19, 2015, only to realise she had never dropped him off that day. In the hours in between, Noah had suffered fatal heatstroke in the back of her car.
Though leaving a child unattended in a vehicle can carry penalty of $3690 or up to six months jail in Victoria, Romy Zunde was never charged with a crime. Instead, a 2017 inquest by the Victorian Coronor accepted her evidence that the incident had been accidental. This is a phenomenon commonly known as ‘Forgotten Baby Syndrome’.
What is Forgotten Baby Syndrome?
It’s a phrase coined to refer to cases like Annie’s and Romy’s, in which a parent or guardian inadvertently leaves a child behind, unattended - generally in a vehicle or home.
While used widely in the media, it’s generally not a term favoured by psychologists. Because, as Associate Professor of Psychology Matthew Mundy explained during the Noah Zunde inquest, use of the word ‘syndrome’ infers “some kind of pathology at play in the brain”. And in Romy’s circumstance, at least, there was no underlying disease or medical condition that lead to her lapse in memory.
So what causes a parent to forget about their own child?
Professor David Diamond, a leading researcher in ‘Forgotten Baby Syndrome’, points to the interaction between two kinds of memory systems - prospective memory and habit memory.
As he explained via The Conversation, “Prospective memory refers to the planning and execution of an action in the future, such as planning to take a child to daycare. Habit memory refers to tasks that involve repetitive actions that are performed automatically, as in routinely driving from one location to another, such as from home to work.”
Habit memory can often prevail over prospective memory - say, when you forget to stop for groceries on your way home from work, or when you take the turn-off to your old address after moving house. And yes, Professor Diamond argues, sometimes in more extreme examples - such as when you drive home or to work, and forget your child is still in the back seat.
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In his research into such cases, Professor Diamond found this process to be so powerful that each parent even had a “false memory” of dropping their child off safely.
As Romy Zunde told the Coronor, “I was so confused. I had a clear memory of dropping him off. I think, now, that my memory was recalling the day before. I started to freak out on the lawn asking [the childcare centre operator] what day it was.”
Professor Diamond and Associate Professor Mundy both hold that this could happen to anyone. As the latter told the Victorian inquest according to ABC, "If you are capable of forgetting to post a letter, you are capable of forgetting to take your baby out of the car.
"Consciously we know that child is way more important than a letter or your mobile phone, but your brain cells … are not making that discrimination for you."
Are there any contributing factors to the Forgotten Baby phenomenon?
Professor Diamond has concluded via his research that, while each case is different, there are a handful of common features:
- “A change in the parent’s routine that leads him or her to follow an alternate, but well-traveled, route”;
- “A change in how the parent interacted with the child during the drive, such as when a child might have fallen asleep en route”;
- “and a lack of a cue, such as a sound or an object associated with the child – for example, a diaper bag in plain view”.
He also identified stress before or during the drive and sleep deprivation as common aspects of these cases. When combined, these factors can lead to tragedy.
Annie, for example, told of experiencing an intensely busy period at work and difficulty sleeping in the lead up to leaving her daughter behind: “She had been so quiet in the car and I had so much on my mind that I unconsciously went into auto-pilot.”
While Annie said her daughter emerged seemingly unaffected, she said she will never forgive herself for what happened.
“I have to live with what I have done for the rest of my life. Yes it was an accident, but that doesn’t change what happened.”
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So how can parents prevent ‘Forgotten Baby Syndrome’?
The coronor recommended a review of Australian and New Zealand standards for child safety restraints, and some commentators have called upon car manufacturers to install audio/visual alerts that a child is in the rear of the vehicle.
But until - and even beyond - then, it’s down to parents. One key tactic lies in creating your own audio/visual cues. The Coronor’s findings in the Noah Zunde case, for example, noted that he was in a rear-facing child restraint, not visible from the driver’s seat, and that his lunchbox - which was normally placed in the front of the vehicle - was on his lap during the trip.
A cue could be as simple as placing a large stuffed toy in place of your belongings in the front seat, as Amy Noonan previously suggested on Mamamia - in her case a large, cumbersome teddy bear: “When the baby is in the car, Big Ted is riding shotgun upfront in the passenger seat,” and her bags are in back.
“Having to open the back doors to retrieve your stuff means you’re more likely to see your sleeping baby. And check whether your childcare centre or school will ring you – and keep ringing – if your child doesn’t turn up for school or care that day.”