Permissive Parenting May Be Hurting Kids' Sleep

October 09, 1997

Permissive parenting that doesn't set limits or consistently enforce rules when a child is awake is likely to mean the child isn't getting a good night's rest.

When a research team compared 80 children from a sleep disorders clinic with 52 others at a primary care clinic for well children, they found that lax and permissive parenting was strongly associated with sleep disturbances among the children in the well group. Lax parenting was described as parents giving in, allowing rules to go unenforced, or providing positive consequences for bad behaviors.

Judith Owens-Stively, MD, and a research team from Rhode Island Hospital, Brown University School of Medicine (Providence, RI) and George Washington University (Washington, DC) publish their findings in the October Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics. The children in the study averaged 5.7 years old.

The researchers suggest that one reason the permissive-parenting link did not show up as well in the sleep-disorders pediatric group may be that children with more serious behavioral problems traceable to lax parenting probably are sent to a mental health clinic instead of a sleep disorders clinic. "It is also possible," they write, "that other parent-related variables not directly measured in this study, such as marital discord or maternal depression, are more important predictors of children's sleep problems...severe enough to result in referral to" a sleep-disorder clinic.

It has been estimated that between 15 and 35 percent of young children have problems sleeping. These include refusal to go to bed, waking up at night, sleepwalking and nightmares.

The researchers asked the parents of the children about sleep disturbances, child temperament, behavioral problems, and parenting styles.

Intense and negative temperament characteristics in children was associated with clinically significant behavioral sleep disturbances. As might be expected, highly emotional children - those with a high level of distress and low level of soothability - and those who have behavioral problems during the daytime are also more likely to have problems sleeping at night.

The authors recommend that further studies be based on larger sample sizes and use independent observation instead of only parents' answers to questionnaires.

The Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics is published bi-monthly by the Society for Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics.

Dr. Owens-Stively may be contacted at (401) 444-8280.

Release posted by the Center for the Advancement of Health . For information about the Center, contact Richard Hébert at (202) 387-2829 or by e-mail:

Center for Advancing Health

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