Approximately 1 in every 28 American children has a parent behind bars. Roughly 52% of state inmates and 63% of federal inmates have minor children and, with more than 2.3 million adults incarcerated today in the United States, that represents a large population of youngsters whose lives have been disrupted through no fault of their own.
Research has already shown that the incarceration of a parent results in a host of developmental challenges that are among the often overlooked “collateral consequences” of incarceration, such as academic difficulties, behavioral problems, illicit drug use, and socio-emotional skills deficits.
One more should be added: Having a parent in prison also take a toll on children’s sleep and eating patterns.
In a recent study published in The Journal of Pediatrics, my colleague Michael Vaughn and I analyzed data from a large sample of at-risk families in the U.S. to explore the role that incarceration of mothers and fathers might play in their kindergarten-aged children’s sleep and eating behaviors. Approximately 12% of the mothers and 46% of the fathers had experienced incarceration prior to the time period at which the children’s health behaviors were examined.
Parents were asked whether their child had trouble falling asleep and whether their child was regularly sleeping less than the National Sleep Foundation’s recommended amount for this age group (i.e., less than 9-11 hours of sleep). They also reported on the extent to which the child ate a number of unhealthy foods, including sweets, salty snacks, starches, soda, and fast food.
The results were striking.
Children of incarcerated mothers were more likely to experience insufficient sleep on a regular basis. Moreover, the diets of these children were characterized by more fast food, sweets, soda, and salty snacks, relative to children whose mothers had not experienced incarceration.
We also found that having a father behind bars poses similar risks to children’s sleep and dietary patterns. Children with incarcerated fathers were more likely to exhibit sleep problems and shorter sleep durations compared to kids whose fathers had not been incarcerated. Moreover, children with incarcerated fathers were found to consume more salty snacks, starches, sweets, and soda than children without incarcerated fathers.
When examined jointly, we found that the probability of risk behaviors across both the dietary and sleep domains was twice as high among children who have had both their parents incarcerated, relative to those who have had neither parent incarcerated.
The results of the study have broader relevance for criminal justice and public health initiatives that seek to minimize the collateral health consequences of incarceration.
First, the results suggest an urgent need to provide services to vulnerable populations in which a high proportion of adults, including parents, have experienced incarceration. It should be noted that sleep and eating behaviors are not fixed, but are modifiable. Proper attention and services tailored to at-risk groups of children can improve these health behaviors and enhance long-term wellbeing.
We believe our findings should be taken into account by those service providers who deal with justice-involved families. That includes educators and pediatricians, who should be encouraged to identify children who may require special attention and services to maintain a healthy lifestyle.
This can include education about healthy sleep patterns and access to nutritious variety of foods that facilitate proper physical, cognitive, and behavioral development. It must be made perfectly clear that children of incarcerated parents are indeed experiencing one of the most challenging and disruptive events that a child can experience, and that the stress and the strain of such an experience can be manifested in the form of sleep and eating behaviors which, if maintained, have the potential to diminish future health and quality of life.
Matriculation into elementary schools can represent an important point of intervention. At this time, children of incarcerated parents can be more closely monitored to ensure that they are afforded regular opportunities to eat a healthy balanced meal while at school. More broadly, it may be worthwhile to consider implementing policies that encourage and reward school systems for adopting healthier guidelines for meals and snacks, especially those in disadvantaged communities where there is a larger proportion of households affected by incarceration.
Brief training could also be provided to teachers, staff and administrators to recognize the signs of insufficient or disorder sleep and provide services to those families that can assist them in the implementation of a healthier sleep routine.
Our findings should make it clear that incarceration impacts not only the parent who is under correctional control, but also has profound and widespread effects on the health and well-being of their offspring.
Sufficient sleep and proper eating habits are cornerstones of health. Attending to these during sensitive developmental periods is crucial. The evidence pointing to incarceration as a disruptive force that interferes with the healthy development of children is now impossible to ignore.
We hope that our study will lead to fruitful engagement across policy arenas where the lines between criminal justice, social, public, and health policy are blurred.
Dylan B. Jackson is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Criminal Justice at the University of Texas at San Antonio. He is a developmental and health criminologist who studies the link between health factors and criminal and antisocial behaviors across the life course. His work has appeared in journals such as The Journal of Pediatrics, Social Science & Medicine, Prevention Science, Preventive Medicine, Journal of Criminal Justice, and Journal of Quantitative Criminology. He welcomes comments from readers.