The study examines the effects of maternal incarceration on adolescent health risk behaviors.


Women represent the fastest growing population in US correctional facilities. In the past four decades, the number of women incarcerated has increased more than 475 percent, from 26,326 in 1980 to 152,854 in 2020. Because most of the women incarcerated are mothers, a conservative estimate is at least one million American children. Many of them are teenagers who have experienced the incarceration of their mothers.

Evidence suggests that maternal incarceration is associated with increased risk of youth depression and suicide, as well as substance abuse and delinquency. However, little work has been done to understand how it affects sleep patterns, eating habits, and physical activity.

Understanding the prevalence of these health risk behaviors is important to prevent disease in adulthood, as harmful effects associated with sleep, diet, and physical activity may be ameliorated.

Qianwei Zhao, Ph.D., assistant professor and co-director of the Baylor IMPACT Lab at the Diana R. Garland School of Social Work at Baylor University, led a team of researchers to study this issue. Their latest research examines the association between recent maternal incarceration and adolescent sleep patterns, eating behaviors, and physical activity participation.Published in April communitiesan international, peer-reviewed and open access journal of sociology.


To assess the relationship between maternal incarceration history and maternal incarceration, Zhao and his research team used a large national data set to examine the prevalence of risk behaviors related to sleep, diet, and physical activity, and to assess the relationship between maternal incarceration and these behaviors. They used safety research. Health hazards.

“This project builds on my previous work on the effects of maternal incarceration on adolescent health risk behaviors, which is an under-researched area,” Zhao said.


Using that national data set to explore the Baylor study, he found the following.

  • Adolescents with maternal incarceration were significantly less likely to eat breakfast at least four days per week than those without maternal incarceration.

  • The upper class ate fast food at least two days a week.

  • A very high proportion had at least two sugary drinks a day.

  • Adolescents who experienced maternal incarceration reported a significantly increased number of sleepless days per week.

  • Adolescents who experience maternal restraint are more likely to have sleep problems than those without maternal restraint.


According to Zhao, the findings of this study contribute to the growing literature on the consequences of maternal incarceration on adolescent health risk behaviors and inform interventions to change risk behaviors and improve public health.

“It is important to explore policies and programs that reduce the impact of structural and systemic factors on the incarceration of teenage mothers, thereby improving healthy youth development,” Zhao said.

While some early programs have been developed to provide support groups and family skills training for these adolescents and their caregivers, the need for additional programs focused on nutrition, physical activity, and sleep continues.

For example, additional support for these families may include nutrition education, access to healthy meals in existing school programs, including breakfast during the school year and summer months, case management that connects these families with counseling services, food banks or other local nutrition programs, and participation in sports or other physical activities. More accessible opportunities.

“Given the increasing rate of adolescent maternal incarceration in the United States, it is imperative that researchers, academics, and community members advocate for policy changes,” he said.


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