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Sleep, behaviour, discipline: Parent pain

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Little girl waking up in bed


A survey of Victorian parents confirms that while most parents have confidence in their parenting and are in good physical and mental health, they continue to struggle with sleep issues, behaviour and discipline.

The Parenting Today in Victoria survey is conducted every three years and is a comprehensive look at the concerns, needs and behaviours of Victorian parents.

The survey shines the light on areas where parents are feeling confident, as well as areas where they might need additional support. The views of 2,600 parents and carers of children aged from birth to 18 years were used to compile the report.

Focus on sleep

Sleep is one of the biggest concerns for all parents. Around one third of parents say their child’s sleep is a problem for them, including parents of teens.

The study found this was consistent with previous research suggesting 30–50% of parents describe their child’s sleep as problematic. While a total of 35% said their children’s sleep was a problem, that rose to 50% for parents of babies and toddlers (0-2 years) and dropped to 33% for parents of adolescents.

The overwhelming “take home” from the survey is that sleep problems are common to many parents, regardless of the child’s age and parents need help to improve their child’s sleep.

And while it’s well known that sleep is improved by putting in place good bedtime routines and healthy lifestyles – and that sleep disorders are treatable – the survey shows there is a need for further education and support for professionals in helping families identify the nature of the sleep challenges.

The survey also found it was clear that there’s a strong link between child sleep problems and parent mental health, and that parent fatigue has a big impact on parenting. The survey showed that a parent’s mental health is strongly related to a child’s poor sleep.

Understanding and addressing parent concerns

Victorian Minister for Child Protection, Disability, Ageing and Careers Luke Donnellan says the survey is a valuable tool in understanding parents’ concerns and challenges.

“We understand the important role parents play in supporting their children’s wellbeing and development and also, the additional challenges that many parents are currently experiencing due to the COVID-19 pandemic,” Mr Donnellan says.

Other examples of child sleep challenges faced by this group of parents, included:

  • 57% of parents of children with behavioural issues reported sleep problems compared with 17% of parents of children without behavioural issues
  • 50% of parents of children with autism spectrum disorder reported sleep problems compared with 19% of other parents
  • 44% of parents of children with anxiety reported sleep problems compared with 17% of other parents.

Although sleep problems were a greater concern for parents of these children, the problems themselves were similar to problems reported by parents of typically developing children of the same age.

The survey also revealed that gender, education and income were less influential in the prediction of parents’ ratings of their child sleep problems than both parent mental health and child complex needs.

The following factors didn’t make a difference to reported sleep problems or total hours slept by children:

  • whether parents lived in metropolitan areas or regional areas
  • whether parents lived in areas of greater or lesser socioeconomic disadvantage
  • parent age
  • number of children in the family
  • the number of hours children spend using technology

It seems that the extra challenges of parent mental ill-health and any health or learning issues the child experienced are the things which make it more likely that parents will rate their children’s sleep as a problem.

Other questions in the survey revealed some of the additional challenges around parenting today, and the shortfalls between how parents behaved and what they expected of themselves:

  • Two out of every five parents agreed or strongly agreed that they wished they did not become impatient with their child so quickly, with this regret expressed most commonly among parents of young children (two to five years old).
  • Nearly 30% of parents reported that they wished they were more consistent in their parenting behaviour.
  • Nearly three in ten parents (28%) agreed or strongly agreed that they felt they were sometimes too critical of their children.
  • Over a third stated that they were dissatisfied or had mixed feelings about the amount of time they could give their children.

The survey also asked questions about child discipline.

Positive parenting strategies were reported by the majority of the sample: 82% reported that they rewarded or praised their children when they behaved well. But punitive methods were also reported.

More than a quarter (28%) of all parents stated that they smacked their children at least a little, and parents of young children (three to five years old) reported smacking more often than parents of children of other ages.

Two percent of parents reported that they smacked their children when they misbehaved ‘quite a lot or very much’. A much larger proportion — one in ten — reported yelling at their child quite a lot.

The findings broadly however reflect a positive story for the majority of Victorian parents. These parents report good physical and mental health. For the most part they report that they are confident in knowing where to seek help, are engaging in constructive learning activities with their children, and feel supported in their parenting.

Highlights of the Parenting Today in Victoria study

  • 91% of parents said they had confidence in themselves as a parent
  • 87% reported good physical health
  • 79% reported good mental health
  • 91% has someone they could turn to for advice
  • 80% were satisfied with the help they receive from professionals such as GPs and educators
  • 79% used the internet for parenting information
  • 41% wished they didn’t become impatient with their child so quickly
  • 28% felt they were too critical of their children
  • 28% reported smacking their children
  • 36% said their children’s sleep was a problem for them
  • 80% felt what they did at home with their preschool child was extremely important for their child’s learning
  • 52% of 0 to 2-year-olds are not being read to every day
  • 46% of children 3-5 years are not being read to every day