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.