A Herald Sun investigation found more than 53 children and babies have been mistreated or lost in three years.
Some were subjected to shocking and illegal punishments.
One carer picked babies up by one arm and dropped them on the ground to discipline them.
Toddlers at two centres had their mouths taped shut.
A five-year-old at one centre was put in a nappy and placed in a cot as a disciplinary measure.
The lives of five youngsters were put at risk by medication mix-ups.
And 25 children, as young as 17 months, roamed free from centres.
The revelations come as the State Government delays a critical review of staff levels.
Victoria has the worst ratio of qualified staff to children in the nation. Even so, the Brumby Government granted 134 exemptions to staff requirements last year.
Documents obtained by the Herald Sun reveal investigations into 45 incidents led to cautions against 24 centres from 2004-06 – but their names cannot be revealed.
The Government refuses to identify the centres, claiming it would be a breach of confidence and inhibit its capacity to collect such information in future.
The Herald Sun was given access to executive briefings on cautions after a four-month Freedom of Information battle and a demand for $1000 in charges.
Only four centres were prosecuted in the same period – all for allowing children to wander off.
'Some parents never told'
One carer said many incidents went unreported, despite mandatory reporting laws.
"Some parents are never even told of incidents involving their children," the carer said.
The documents show unreported incidents, including force feeding babies, were uncovered during other investigations.
A worker accused of smacking three children, pushing one off a swing, pinching another and pulling a child's hair, was allowed to continue to work under supervision because the claims could not be proved.
The worker who dropped babies on the ground and force fed them was sacked. Claims the same worker hit a baby with a laminated sheet could not be substantiated.
The documents also show:
A CRYING boy was found locked in a small cupboard when his father came to collect him.
A CHILD spent a night in hospital after being given 15 times the required amount of medication.
CHILDREN at one centre were left unattended in fenced-off areas.
STAFF at another centre were instructed not to comfort crying children.
'Need to be superhuman'
Childcare worker Bronwen Jefferson – whose daughter Miranda, 3, is in care – said parents had a right to expect their children to be properly cared for.
"You want to think when you drop your child off that they will be safe.
"But the ratio of childcare workers to children in Victoria is not adequate . . . you'd have to be superhuman to carry out that all day diligently."
Centres should have one qualified carer for every five infants up to two years old, and one carer for every 15 youngsters aged three to five.
"I hear from our members repeatedly that it's just too hard to look after that many children and they're completely burnt out," union boss Jess Walsh said.
"It's not just a matter of ratios, it's the other tasks, such as cleaning, that staff are required to do."
Staff are also in short supply, with the award wage for a qualified carer of three or more years' experience being $39,401.
The Government promised to review staff levels before current childcare regulations expired in May.
But just four days before Christmas, centres were told the rules would remain in place another year to allow for "further consultation".
Opposition children and early development spokeswoman Wendy Lovell said the Government has had eight years to review the rules.
Children and Early Development Minister Maxine Morand said Victoria had Australia's most robust on-the-spot inspections regime.
"There were more than 4000 on-the-spot inspections last year," Ms Morand said.
She said the Government planned to strengthen laws to let parents check safety records on line and to boost the power of inspectors and stiffen penalties.
Ms Morand said staffing exemptions were vital to keep some centres open.
"We will work hard to make sure Victoria gets its fair share of the fully funded 8000 new early childhood TAFE places promised by the new Rudd Government," she said.
'Afraid of bad publicity'
A Department source said there was a reluctance to prosecute centres because the bad publicity would place further strain on already over-stretched services.
"If the public heard what happened at some centres there would be a stampede to get kids out," the source said.
One of the four centres prosecuted was the ABC centre at Hoppers Crossing, where an autistic toddler with a fascination for cars was almost run over in busy Werribee Park Plaza car park after wandering unnoticed from care.
The boy was rescued by a motorist 25 minutes after he disappeared.
Police found a two-year-old playing in the middle of a busy street when he crossed rail tracks after walking from a centre at Trackside Sporting Centre in Hampton.
The centre, which was operating without a licence despite being told three years earlier that it needed to get one, has since closed.
A four-year-old who dodged cars to cross busy Bourke Rd after leaving Samantha's Child Care in Camberwell was found by police metres from his home.