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

Women represent the fastest growing population in U.S. correctional facilities. Over the past four decades, the number of incarcerated women has increased by more than 475%, from 26,326 in 1980 to 152,854 in 2020. Because the majority of incarcerated women are mothers a conservative estimate is that at least one million American children who are mothers have experienced maternal incarceration, and a significant proportion of these are adolescents.

There is evidence that maternal incarceration is a risk factor for depression and withdrawal symptoms, as well as for substance abuse and delinquency among adolescents. However, little work has been done to understand how it affects sleep patterns, dietary behaviors and physical activity.

Because the harmful effects of sleep, diet, and exercise can be modified, understanding the prevalence of these unhealthy behaviors is critical to disease prevention in adulthood.

Qianwei Zhao, Ph.D., assistant professor and co-director of the Baylor IMPACT Lab at Baylor University’s Diana R. Garland School of Social Work, led a team of researchers to study this topic. Her latest research – examining the association between recent maternal incarceration and adolescents’ sleep patterns, dietary behaviors, and participation in physical activityappeared in April in companiesan international, peer-reviewed, and open access journal of sociology.


Zhao and the research team used a large national dataset — the Fragile Family and Child Wellbeing Study — to examine the prevalence of risky behaviors related to sleep, diet, and physical activity among adolescents with maternal incarceration histories, and the association between maternal incarceration and these behaviors assess health risks.

“This project builds on my previous work on the impact of maternal incarceration on adolescent health risk behaviors, an area that is still poorly understood,” Zhao said.


Using this national data set to investigate, the Baylor research found the following:

  • A significantly lower proportion of adolescents with maternal incarceration experience ate breakfast at least four days per week than adolescents without maternal incarceration experience.
  • A significantly higher proportion of them ate fast food at least two days a week.
  • A significantly higher proportion of them consumed at least two sweetened drinks per day.
  • Adolescents with maternal incarceration reported significantly more days per week that they had trouble falling asleep.
  • Adolescents with maternal incarceration experience had significantly more problems falling asleep than adolescents without maternal incarceration experience.


According to Zhao, the results of this study will add to the growing literature on the consequences of maternal incarceration on adolescent health risk behaviors and potentially inform interventions to change their risk behaviors and improve population health.

“It is important to explore strategies and programs that can reduce the impact of structural and systemic factors on youth with incarcerated mothers, thereby enhancing healthy youth development,” Zhao said.

While some previous programs were designed to provide support groups and family training for these youth and their caregivers, there remains a need for more programs that focus on nutrition, exercise, and sleep.

Additional support for these families could come, for example, in the form of nutrition education, access to healthy nutrition through existing school programs including breakfast during the school year and summer months, and case management connecting these families to counseling services, food banks, etc., local nutrition programs and additional accessible opportunities to engage in sports or other physical activities.

“With the increasing incidence of maternal incarceration among juveniles in the United States, it is important that researchers, academics and community members advocate for policy changes to fund such programs,” Zhao said.

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