Breast is best, except when mom's wasted

North Dakota mom pleads guilty to child neglect

Published July 7, 2009 6:08PM (EDT)

Hello, BWI! Yes, that's breast-feeding while intoxicated. Stacey Anvarinia, 26, of Bismarck, N.D., could face up to five years in prison for nursing her 6-week-old in front of cops when they claim she was plastered. The new mom has pleaded guilty to child neglect.

The police came to Anvarinia's home on April 13 responding to a domestic dispute. She told officers that her boyfriend had assaulted her, according to the Associated Press. The cops reported that she had swelling on her nose and a scratch on her left cheek.

The boyfriend wasn't there, and has not been charged, but Anvarinia was brought up on felony child-neglect charges, after she breast-fed her 6-week-old in front of the officers. While the cops insist that she was intoxicated, they did not do a blood alcohol test on her, much less the baby. But child neglect in North Dakota charges do not require such a test.

The cops say that they know three sheets to the wind when they see it. "The majority of our problems are caused by alcohol," Grand Forks Police Capt. Kerwin Kjelstrom told the AP. "Our officers handle it so much that it is pretty much a general knowledge thing to know when someone is intoxicated. It's pretty obvious."

Dr. Amy Tuteur, who writes the Skeptical OB blog, argues that BWI shouldn't be considered a crime: "Since when is breastfeeding while drunk a crime? Is it even a danger to the baby's health? There is certainly a theoretical risk that a baby can be harmed by breastfeeding from a chronically intoxicated mother. Ethanol (alcohol) passes from the mother's blood stream into her breast milk. However, it is diluted, and the baby receives only a tiny fraction of what the mother consumed. There is no scientific evidence that breastfeeding during a single episode of intoxication is harmful to the baby in any way."

The cops insist that they didn't charge Anvarinia just because she was nursing but because of the whole chaotic situation. Yet, even while issuing such assurances, one cop expressed surprise at the mom's behavior. "This case is more than just the breastfeeding. It was the totality of the circumstances," Grand Forks Police Lt. Rahn Farder told the AP. "It is quite unusual for a mother to be breastfeeding her child as we are conducting an investigation, whether she was intoxicated or not."

Dr. Tuteur thinks that it was nursing that unleashed the hand of the law on Anvarinia: "Let's be clear. They didn't charge Ms. Anvarinia because she was drunk in her own home. They didn't charge her because they thought that she was too drunk to care for her infant. They charged her because she was breastfeeding. Had she been bottlefeeding the baby, they would have ignored her drunkenness, though arguably the baby faced health risks from a drunken mother mixing formula. Mixing formula powder with water in the wrong proportions can be harmful to a baby."

There isn't a lot of good data on the impacts of alcohol passed through mother's milk to infants, because scientists can't ethically conduct experiments where they encourage nursing mothers to hit the bottle, and then give their babies the boob. So, data about the effects of nursing while intoxicated is anecdotal at best.

Nevertheless, the American Academy of Pediatrics says excessive alcohol consumption by a breast-feeding mother can lead to drowsiness, deep sleep, weakness and abnormal weight gain in an infant. Dr. Lori Feldman-Winter, who helps oversee breast-feeding policy for the American Academy of Pediatrics, told the AP: "A mother who becomes intoxicated should not breastfeed. After drinking one glass of wine, a woman should abstain from breast-feeding for two to three hours."

Folk wisdom holds that cracking a cold one can help with milk production and letdown, although at least one recent study has debunked that conventional wisdom. Some nursing moms "pump-and-dump" after drinking alcohol to get milk tainted with alcohol out of their systems.

Anvarinia has pleaded guilty but has not yet been sentenced. Authorities have not revealed who now has custody of the baby.

Some nursing moms expressed sympathy for Anvarinia and her infant. Sarah Jio writes on Yahoo's Shine: "Do I think that breastfeeding while drunk is a bad idea? Yes -- 100 percent. But do I think that a woman should be taken away from her infant and locked up for five years because of it? I'm sorry, but I just don't think so. Here's a better idea: Put the woman on probation. Make her take a year of parenting classes (which she clearly needs). Assign a CPS worker to make visits. Test her blood-alcohol level ever Friday night -- whatever needs to be done. But, it breaks my heart to see a mother separated from her infant in these circumstances."

What do Broadsheet readers think?

By Katharine Mieszkowski

Katharine Mieszkowski is a senior writer for Salon.

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