Parents who have unknowingly left a child in a car describe these cognitive processing errors for not realizing the child was left behind. Sadly, loving and prioritizing a child does not prevent the “brain mistakes” that lead to unknowingly leaving a child in a hot car.
Auto-pilot due to a change in routine:
We all become efficient in our everyday lives because our brains have the ability to carry out routine behaviors without much thought. The part of the brain that controls routine behaviors is quite powerful and can override the part of the brain that controls decision-making and planning.
The majority of parents who unknowingly leave a child in a car report a routine change prior to or during the drive. When a parent plans to drop off the child at daycare, but experiences a routine change before or after leaving the home, the part of the brain in charge of routine behaviors can override the planning part of the brain, therefore leading the parent to follow through with his or her normal routine. For example, if a parent does not normally take the child to daycare, he or she may drive straight to work without making the daycare drop-off. Or, if a parent normally does the drop-off and then stops for coffee, but decides to get coffee first, he or she may drive straight to work after getting the coffee rather than dropping off the child.
False memory reconstruction:
Some parents who have left their child in a car, firmly believed they had dropped the child off. One common theme in cases like this is that parents often visualized how the drop-off would go. They report details like imagining who they talked to at daycare, what the daycare teacher said to them, and how their child handled the drop-off. They talked about their kids during the day with co-workers and in some cases, even went to the school to pick up their child still not knowing he/she was still buckled into the carseat in the back.