Today I left the front door open.

Not just unlocked but wide open. We lived in downtown Chapel Hill, with plenty of opportunity for someone to waltz right in. Luckily the worse case scenario did not happen, such as coming back to discover a murderer hiding in the bathroom. But still, how could I have been so neglectful?

My explanation: we didn’t follow our regular routine. It was a Thursday morning, the one day my son attended preschool. My husband usually stayed home with our daughter while I drove Oscar in. But this particular morning was different. My husband had a doctor’s appointment and left before the kids got up. I tackled the morning routine by myself: breakfast, cleaning up, potty time, getting both kids dressed with socks (albeit mismatched), shoes, jackets. There were tears along the way.

Trying to get a baby and a toddler out the door feels similar to attempting to train blind kittens how to synchronize swim. We usually keep Poppy’s infant carseat in the house, which assists the load-in process. But oops, we’d left it in the car. I resorted to scooping up a squirming child under each arm, with my purse flung over my shoulder, my keys dangling from my mouth, and bolted for the door. I left it wide open with the intention of closing it after I loaded up the thrashing, screaming kiddos.

It came down to simple logistics: I didn’t have enough limbs to close the door (why oh why can’t human mothers sprout a few extra arms, like a walking octopus???).  And I couldn’t put Oscar down because his fascination with the driveway’s pebbles meant we’d never, ever leave.

I struggled with the stiff carseat straps, dodging pumping limbs and swinging fists. With everyone secure, my brain went on autopilot. Just like any other car trip, I slammed their doors shut, climbed into the driver’s seat, and took off.

With our front door wide open for the world to see.

I was shocked when I arrived home. “Hello?” I called out, my mind racing through possible scenarios. Did my husband’s car break down and he walked home? Did someone bust in? Should I call the cops? My heart raced as I tentatively stepped inside, Poppy balanced on my hip. Then the memory came flooding back. Duh, you’re such an idiot. I turned around and around, taking stock of all our valuables. TV. Laptops. Hard-drives. Everything was still there. Thankfully, we’d dodged a bullet.

However, this incident got me thinking about the little mistakes we make from time to time. The little things we forget to do. The big things we always do, day after day, until the one time we don’t.

Once my mom loaded Oscar into his carseat and then asked me to buckle his straps. I agreed as I struggled to get Poppy strapped in. My mom sat in passenger seat. I finished tightening Poppy’s straps, then automatically got into the driver’s seat. Off we went. Imagine my shock and horror when I opened the back door at our destination and saw Oscar’s carseat straps loose and unbuckled. My almost two-year-old had a goofy grin plastered on his face, as if he knew something was amiss.

How could I have forgotten to buckle him in?

My mind raced to the what ifs; the stuff you read and hear about happening to others but pray and hope it never happens to you. One simple mistake and our lives could’ve been changed forever.

Here’s one tragic case. A dad always drove his baby to daycare, day after day. Then came the day he was out of town so it became the mom’s responsibility. The baby was rear-facing and fell asleep during the car ride. Set to autopilot, the mom drove straight to her office, forgetting to turn off to the daycare. She simply forgot her baby was back there because it wasn’t part of her normal routine. Sadly, the baby didn’t survive. As crazy as stories like this sound, that mother was not alone. Dr. David Diamond, a neuroscientist at the University of South Florida, says there is now a name for this phenomenon: The Forgotten Baby Syndrome. 

Diamond explains how our semantic memory is responsible for the “autopilot” part of our brain — such as driving home without needing to analyze every turn or even the road names. Autopilot isn’t a bad thing, except when there’s a crucial detail we need to be aware of, such as dropping a child off at daycare. Our tendency to enter autopilot when we’re doing familiar activities, along with general exhaustion, can lead to some crazy mistakes, such as a surgeon stitching up a patient with a tool left inside!

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As an attempt to prevent the Forgotten Baby Syndrome, I set up baby car seat mirrors in our car. Now I can quickly glance into the rearview mirror and see my sweet babies in the back seat. Even when I drive by myself, I obsessively check those mirrors. Where is each child? Did I forget anything important? 

Leaving the front door open may seem trivial in the grand scheme of things, but it’s a poignant reminder that we’re often in a rush, our brains cranking on overload. Today it was just an open door, with valuables that could be replaced. But what if I’d made the mistake of forgetting my baby in the car? We convince ourselves we’d never make that big of a mistake, but we’re all human. 

What to do differently

  • Leave clues: When changing up your routine, try to leave a clue to keep you on track. In the case of the open door, I could’ve left my keys on the front porch, ensuring I’d come back to retrieve them before taking off.
  • Set reminders on your phone: It’s true that phones are incredibly distracting. But they’re also helpful! Set little alarms reminding you of a changed routine, such as lock the door or drop baby at daycare. 
  • Invest in back seat mirrors: I used to be nervous about having a mirror in the backseat, but the top brands are very secure and safe. My favorite is this one by Britaxit’s easy to set-up and it tilts in all directions.
  • Use visual reminders: Setting a diaper bag or a rattle in the front seat can help you remember baby is on board. 
  • Leave important items in the backseat: I often throw my purse in the back so that I’m forced to open the back door when we arrive at our destination.
  • Communicate with others: I always have babysitters text me updates throughout the day, just to give me peace of mind. If a parent is taking a child to daycare and it’s not part of their normal routine, have them (or the daycare worker) text you a picture of the child happily playing at the daycare.
  • Stay present: Ah, this is way harder than it sounds, especially for over-worked, sleep-deprived parents! Any given day has an ongoing to-do list in our brain, with beeping phones and constant tasks taking us away from the here and now. Take a moment when leaving the house to pause, look around, and take stock of what needs to happen next. 

I’m curious to hear what little or big things you’ve forgotten to do and how they’ve impacted your life. Drop your experiences below!