A study examining the prevalence of risk behaviors related to sleep, diet, and physical exercise among adolescents with maternal incarceration histories found that such adolescents were significantly more likely to experience sleep difficulties, along with poorer diet and exercise habits. 

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

Because the detrimental effects related to sleep, diet, and exercise can be modified, understanding the prevalence of these health risk behaviors is essential to disease prevention in adulthood, according to a release from Baylor University.

Qianwei Zhao, PhD, 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 was published in Societies.

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

“This project builds upon my previous work on the impact of maternal incarceration on adolescent health risk behaviors, which remains an area under-investigated,” says Zhao in a release.

Using that national dataset to explore The Baylor research found that:

  • Adolescents with maternal incarceration experiences reported significantly more days having problems staying asleep per week.
  • Adolescents with maternal incarceration experiences were significantly more likely to have problems staying asleep than those without maternal incarceration experiences.
  • A significantly lower proportion of adolescents with maternal incarceration experiences ate breakfast at least four days a week than those without maternal incarceration experiences.
  • A significantly higher proportion of them ate fast food for at least two days a week.
  • A significantly higher proportion of them had at least two sweetened drinks per day.

According to Zhao, findings from this study will contribute to the growing literature on the consequences of maternal incarceration on adolescent health risk behaviors and may inform interventions to change their risky behaviors and improve population health.

“It is important to explore policies and programs that can reduce the impact of structural and systemic factors on adolescents with incarcerated mothers, thereby improving healthy youth development,” says Zhao in the release.

While some prior programming has been developed to offer support groups and family skills training for these adolescents and their caregivers, the need continues for more programming focused on sleep, diet, and exercise.

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