Notes on Parenting

Insights for parenting babies, toddlers, teens, and young adults.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

The Relationship Between Mothers' Fatigue and Interactions with Toddlers


As most mothers know, feeling some degree of fatigue on a daily basis is an almost inescapable part of early parenthood. Caring for small children takes a lot of energy and many parents are often caring for an infant (who may not sleep well) at the same time as a toddler or preschooler. Parents who have experienced this frequent fatigue know that it can really wear on your patience. When you are tired, it is often harder to be patient and considerate of a toddler’s sometimes erratic or less-than-compliant behavior. Researchers have taken note of this and have begun to study the influence of fatigue on mothers’ interactions with their toddlers.

A recent study considered this issue, specifically studying maternal fatigue and their use of verbal control with their toddlers. The study included 34 mother-toddler pairs and assessed mothers’ verbal interactions during a patience task in which the toddler was instructed not to touch a particular toy for eight minutes. During this task, several types of mothers’ verbal control strategies were coded, including:


  •      polite do: mother requests that the child perform or stop performing a behavior
  •      hint do: mother hints that the child should perform or stop performing a behavior
  •      positive evaluation: mother praises child’s behavior to encourage its continuance
  •      bargaining: mother requests the child’s compliance by offering something in exchange
  •      empathy: mother showing empathy with child’s feelings
  •      negative evaluation: mother chastising child for non-compliant behavior

The researchers then evaluated the relationship between these verbal control strategies and mothers’ fatigue and sleep deprivation. Not surprisingly, the results showed that the more fatigued mothers were, the less likely they were to use positive verbal control strategies (polite do, hint do, positive evaluation) during the patience task. Similarly, mothers who experienced more sleep deprivation were less likely to use polite do, hint do or bargaining strategies.

While this research is not surprising, especially to parents, it is important to delineate how fatigue can influence common parental behavior. The authors of this study and others have suggested that fatigue may be similar to depression in how it often makes it difficult for parents to be appropriately responsive to their children. There is a large body of research showing the influence of parental (particularly maternal) depression on child adjustment, but less is known about fatigue as an independent factor. Studies like this one are a important step in understanding how fatigue can influence parents’ ability to respond positively to their children.


ResearchBlogging.orgCarmel Parker White, Sarah L. Bradley, Lauren Neverve, Laura Stirewalt, Xochitl Summers (2013). Does Maternal Fatigue Influence Maternal Verbal Control in a Stressful Parenting Task with Toddlers? Journal of Child and Family Studies DOI: 10.1007/s10826-013-9843-x


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