Women faces five years in prison for drinking while breastfeeding

A woman was arrested after police officers saw her drinking while breastfeeding her baby. They say she was “extremely intoxicated,” but as far as I can tell, there isn’t much evidence to back up that contention. She apparently pleaded guilty to a Class C felony:

Officers responded to an unrelated call at a Grand Forks residence in the early morning of Feb. 13 and saw 26-year-old Stacey Anvarinia slurring her speech and breastfeeding, prosecutor Meredith Larson told the judge.

Citing a police report, Larson said officers were concerned about the infant’s welfare, so they called Altru Hospital and were told that breast-feeding while intoxicated was not good for the child.

“Ms. Anvarinia was notified of that, and she continued to make attempts to breast-feed,” Larson said.

Anvarinia, who no longer is in custody, is slated to be sentenced on the Class C felony charge Aug. 7.

This is one of those situations where bodily autonomy arguments get a little fuzzy (although either way, child neglect is a pretty severe crime to charge her with). If she was pregnant, I think it would be pretty clear that this would be a serious violation of her rights — after all, she has a right to consume legal substances like alcohol, pregnant or not. But things get tricker when they involve another human being, who cannot care for itself, being fed potentially dangerous substances — even if those substances are made dangerous by someone else engaging in a perfectly legal activity.

That said, there’s some question as to how dangerous alcohol consumption while breastfeeding actually is. Common belief seems to be that drinking while breastfeeding is a no-no, but from what I’ve read, moderate alcohol use poses virtually no harm to a breastfeeding infant. Whether the woman in this incident was consuming alcohol in moderation is clearly up for debate, but I can’t help but suspect that this case is more about what the police perceived as a Bad Mommy and less about any actual harmful effects on the baby.

While I’m often not a fan of slippery slope arguments (mostly because societies around the world have managed to draw reasonable legal lines), I do worry that this is another step towards policing “imperfect” motherhood. Is there all that much of a difference between charging a woman with a felony for drinking while breastfeeding and charging her with the same crime for smoking with kids in the house? (The difference, I suppose, is that men can smoke too, so they probably won’t start prosecuting parents for it).

The whole case just seems problematic to me. While of course children deserve protection from neglect and abuse — and I’m of the mind that children are afforded too few basic rights in our society — I have a hard time swallowing the argument that this qualifies as felony child neglect.

via The Frisky.

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37 comments for “Women faces five years in prison for drinking while breastfeeding

  1. akeeyu
    June 24, 2009 at 5:49 pm

    I’m not a doctor and I don’t play one on TV, but it’s my understanding that your breastmilk alcohol level is typically the same as your blood alcohol level.

    Let’s assume she was seriously shitfaced. Waaaay over the limit. .20 is pretty loaded, right? That would mean that she was serving her baby breastmilk that was .20% alcohol. Not two percent, one fifth of one percent. That’s…not a lot of alcohol. You could make homemade frosting with a dollop of vanilla extract (70 proof), let the baby lick your finger and probably be giving it more alcohol.

    Potential confounding factors:

    1.Babies kind of have crappy/unpredictable liver and kidney function compared to adults and have a harder time processing/eliminating toxins.
    2. Weight of baby, whether or not it is exclusively breastfed, age of baby, etc.
    3. Babies are total lightweights.

    I can see being concerned with a caregiver who is incapacitated due to intoxication (last year a man was holding his son in his lap, had a few too many, fell asleep and his son rolled off his lap and into a bonfire–HORRIBLE), and that can definitely be classified as negligence, but I think that’s a separate issue than breastfeeding.

    Do we have any pediatricians or toxicologists in the house to shed more light?

  2. Jasmine
    June 24, 2009 at 6:13 pm

    Correct if I”m wrong on this, but I was under the impression that alcohol took like an hour or so to pass into your breast milk, that’s why some women “pump and dump” after drinking so alcohol won’t be passed on to a baby. If she was breastfeeding WHILE drinking is it really likely that the baby would have ingested any of that alcohol? If she was as intoxicated as they say obviously there is the risk of her dropping the baby, but the charges seem iffy to me

  3. Butch Fatale
    June 24, 2009 at 6:21 pm

    As someone with insomnia I can attest that sleep deprivation can cause you to slur your speech.

    Maybe she was extremely intoxicated, but without more evidence than slurred speech to back up that assertion, I’m not convinced.

  4. June 24, 2009 at 6:30 pm

    akeeyu in #1 has it right. Actually, you can get Gripe water with more alcohol than that in it. This is stupid.

  5. Kat
    June 24, 2009 at 7:00 pm

    With my first baby, I was properly shamed by the medical community and society not to even think about drinking anything during pregnancy or breastfeeding. With the second baby, during breastfeeding, I asked my doctor, “is drinking contraindicated during breastfeeding and if so why?”. After much blubbering about how I shouldn’t drink, he really couldn’t come up with any reason, medically, why I shouldn’t. From what I have read, and admittedly that is not a whole lot, a lot of the “don’t drink” mentality is more about shaming the mothering skills of the woman and less about the actual medical implications to the child. As in, if you were a good mother you wouldn’t want to drink. They also use this guilt-trip to keep you from having any sort of OTC or prescription drugs — which I think is more about big pharma slapping on a “don’t use while pregnant or breastfeeding” not because there will be actual harm but because they are trying to keep their liability down.

    Now, I realize that there are situations when parents completely overindulge and lose good judgment (such as the bonfire) and that is its own issue. Shoot, a lot of parents don’t even need alcohol/drugs to be bad parents.

    But having a few glasses of wine while breastfeeding hardly constitutes neglect or abuse.

    As an aside, I had a barista refuse to serve me a mocha while I was pregnant, and lectured me about the evils of caffeine whilst pregnant.

    Pregnant women are subjected to all kinds of unwelcome and uninformed scrutiny.

  6. RMJ
    June 24, 2009 at 7:02 pm

    I think that concern is valid, but a felony is WAY out of line. That shit doesn’t go away.

  7. Kat
    June 24, 2009 at 7:02 pm

    Also — I have done the “pump and dump” thing and I recently heard this is no longer considered necessary, but not sure of the specifics of that.

  8. June 24, 2009 at 7:19 pm

    I’m no doctor and I’m no lawyer.

    But I am pregnant and fiercely attracted to stories about pregnancy, birthing, and mothering right now.

    A point you made, Jill, on an earlier post (can’t remember which one right now), but is jail time REALLY the best response to an issue like this?

    Yes we need to be good parents. Yes we should be the village that raises a well-rounded and healthy child – but

    is throwing the book at a mother for drinking the way we, as a society, want to teach and demonstrate healthy behaviors?

    Seriously, I’m all for protecting the defenseless, but this seems extreme to me, at least with the general information I can gather.

  9. June 24, 2009 at 7:39 pm

    Just speaking from my own experience, it doesn’t take a whole lot of beer to make one tipsy if one has spent, say, nine months or so not drinking any. I really feel for this woman. I remember going out for dinner on my anniversary shortly after my daughter was born. Two glasses of wine later, I was stumbling back to the car.

  10. wondering
    June 24, 2009 at 7:47 pm

    This is crap. What do they think? That the alcohol goes straight from your mouth to your nipple?

    Would they prefer if she didn’t feed her baby? Wouldn’t that be a worse case of neglect?

    Good god, better take me away in chains. I use alcohol when cooking – and feed it to children!

  11. Lyndsay
    June 24, 2009 at 7:53 pm

    Seriously? I can see taking the child away, at least until further investigation is done, but jail? Lots of mothers have children taken away without being arrested, don’t they? Not much can be said though. That article is really brief.

  12. June 24, 2009 at 8:13 pm

    Pregnant women are subjected to all kinds of unwelcome and uninformed scrutiny.

    Absolutely. It’s as if by being pregnant, your body has suddenly become public domain. You’re no longer your own person, you’re a baby incubator. Of course, this doesn’t apply when you’re 9 months pregnant and would like a seat on the bus. Then you can go screw yourself.

    While I was breastfeeding, I was told that having two standard drinks is fine, but if I had more than that, to ‘pump and dump’ the next feed, but I would be fine after that. Someone also mentioned that it takes a while for alcohol to filter into the breast milk, which is also true.

    If anything, I’d say the cops were freaked out about someone breastfeeding in public.

  13. krismcn
    June 24, 2009 at 8:19 pm

    akeeyu #1 is absolutely right. You’d have to be fatally drunk (0.40% blood alcohol is the LD50 for adult humans) to be feeding your baby something akin to weak beer. This is obviously more about not conforming to appropriate idealized maternal behavior than about real child endangerment.

  14. Lance
    June 24, 2009 at 10:03 pm

    I’m not a family law lawyer or criminal lawyer, but: It seems to me that the result should be no different than if she had fed her baby an identical mixture out of a bottle. To the extent somebody can/would be prosecuted under those facts, she should get the exact same legal treatment. The result is different if she’s pregnant; then we run into bodily autonomy issues.

    Of course, there are sticky issues of evidence; the composition of the substance would be an element of the crime, and unless a sample of the breast milk was taken at the time or the baby’s BAC was tested I don’t see how they could prove their case, certainly not beyond a reasonable doubt.

  15. asha
    June 24, 2009 at 10:11 pm

    Hm. In the US in the past, and in other countries now, alcohol is recommended to a nursing mother to promote milk flow. So, wtf?

  16. June 24, 2009 at 10:42 pm

    “Hm. In the US in the past, and in other countries now, alcohol is recommended to a nursing mother to promote milk flow. “

    As has putting a few drops in the bottle to help the kid sleep – a far more risky practice.

    I don’t know. I’m certainly uncomfortable with someone routinely breastfeeding while completely hammered – aside from the issue of the baby getting possibly significant amounts of alcohol once BAC is very very high (and I’m not talking borderline driving limit, but higher), it’s also unsafe to be handling a small baby when you’re completely smashed.

    However, reading between the lines, I’m guessing that this woman may have actual substance abuse issues (as opposed to the made-up ones we talked about in the last post on this issue), which is no call to jail her on felony charges, but to make sure she has all the help she needs, that the baby is safe, and that their mother-baby relationship is supported in safe and non-judgemental ways.

    On the points of fact in the comments: yes, milk ethanol level equals blood ethanol level, more or less. Comparisons to gripe water aren’t necessarily all that useful, because you don’t feed a baby 75-100 ml or more of gripe water at a time. I’ve always followed the rule: sober enough to drive (our limit is 0.05 here), sober enough to feed. Pumping and dumping is not necessary after heavy alcohol intake except for comfort if withholding breastfeeding and engorged; it follows zero-order kinetics, which means that as the blood alcohol level drops, so does the milk level (ethanol is a tiny molecule and diffuses back out to stay in equilibrium).

    Some babies will be more sensitive to small amounts of alcohol in milk than others; they may take in less milk and/or sleep more poorly, but evidence is fairly scant. A few babies will refuse the taste altogether.

  17. June 24, 2009 at 10:45 pm

    Also, note that breastfeeding after light intake of alcohol is probably a fair bit safer than feeding formula. Something that is missing from a lot of these evaluations.

    Highly restrictive alcohol recommendations don’t just lead to demonisation of mothers (a huge problem), but to higher levels of otherwise-unwanted early weaning, which is also a public health problem for both mothers and babies.

  18. June 24, 2009 at 11:25 pm

    Also, note that breastfeeding after light intake of alcohol is probably a fair bit safer than feeding formula.

    Oh, yeah, that’s a proper response to this fiasco.

  19. denelian
    June 24, 2009 at 11:30 pm

    why is everyone suddenly coming down so harshly on the consumption of alcohol?

    i don’t even know where this shit is coming from – last i checked, it was legal for *ANYONE* over the age of 21 to drink alcohol in the US. period. i have never even seen a law that attempts to restrict intake of alcohol in adults, except for drink/driving sort of laws. *never* seen a law that says pregnant women can’t drink, or mothers, or *anything*

  20. June 24, 2009 at 11:41 pm

    Because that one line you pulled is totally the only thing I’ve ever said anywhere on this issue, isn’t it, Auguste? I haven’t been blogging about mother-shaming and infant feeding and unethical/brutal corporate and medical behaviour and demonisation of maternal behaviour, over and over again, for years now, been attempting to educate my colleagues, been working my fucking arse off supporting mothers for nearly a decade of my life. And I also totes said nothing else in _this very thread_, either.

  21. June 25, 2009 at 12:55 am

    And you’ve also never had a hot button pressed either and reacted to it, I suppose. But you’re right about one thing, I failed to notice that the prior long comment was from you, which would have tempered my reaction.

  22. June 25, 2009 at 2:00 am

    You know, if the woman was as drunk as the article portrays her, I would worry about her HOLDING a six week old baby, much less being the one in charge of caring for it. The article doesn’t mention the other people in the residence, but I would certainly hope someone there was sober enough to take care of the child. If not, by all means, get social services involved – let’s target the father/partner too, if he or she’s there and too smashed to be responsible for an infant. The fact that this woman was busted specifically for breastfeeding while intoxicated is BS, though, for the reasons Akeeyu and Lauredhel have mentioned.

  23. Dr. Confused
    June 25, 2009 at 3:23 am

    Milk to plasma ratios are about 0.9.

    I have breastfed drunk, I admit. I drink so little that I get quite wobbly at three drinks. I had about that many on my birthday and fed my daughter. I was not alone with her and was not in any kind of dangerous situations. I suppose I could have dropped her, but I didn’t (although I have sober). I have at other times fed her while tipsy, that is, after one glass of wine.

    I decided not to get drunk around my daughter again. I vaguely remember being around adults when they were drinking and being confused by their changed behaviour. I don’t have any strong need to drink, so I won’t introduce that into my daughter’s life.

    But I was never concerned about the actual alcohol in the drink affecting her. Even if I was nearly passing out, let’s say a blood alcohol level of 0.5%, that would be a milk alcohol level of 0.45%. You can legally sell apple juice with that much alcohol in it.

  24. Dr. Confused
    June 25, 2009 at 3:27 am

    Sources for the above.

    Milk to plasma ratio: http://www.popline.org/docs/0788/044913.html

    Alcohol in apple juice: http://www.madaus.de/Alcohol-in-medicines.183.0.html (alcohol in everyday life section).

  25. preying mantis
    June 25, 2009 at 6:28 am

    “akeeyu #1 is absolutely right. You’d have to be fatally drunk (0.40% blood alcohol is the LD50 for adult humans) to be feeding your baby something akin to weak beer.”

    0.4% alcohol content isn’t weak beer, it’s non-alcoholic beer. That’s the precise alcohol content of O’Douls.

    “However, reading between the lines, I’m guessing that this woman may have actual substance abuse issues”

    My initial guess was that she’s got “poor and not-white” issues. Kind of like how fetal-endangerment laws tend shake out as “reproducing while black.”

  26. June 25, 2009 at 7:33 am

    preying mantis: I totally agree that the way these sorts of laws are applied vigorously discriminates against poor women and women of colour (especially, around here, Indigenous women). (And men, come to that – the recent killing of an Indigenous man via cooking in a police van was after an improperly constituted bail hearing and denial for drink driving.)

    As you say, the same applies to all sorts of laws about reproduction and women’s bodies – from abortion to midwifery and birthing choices to parenting on down. It’s revolting, and inexcusable, and it needs fixing.

    I’ve looked everywhere for the info in my head about this conviction involving a BAC of 0.2 (ten drinks, blackout level), and can’t find it. Right now, I’m going to assume that’s because it doesn’t exist, and I’ve conflated two cases, because my brain is currently FUBAR for various RL reasons. For that, I apologise wholeheartedly.

    On the substance abuse side of things (which is NOT the same as encouraging felony charges or jailing, _which I condemn_), I don’t think I’m being unreasonably priggish by saying that that getting solidly hammered to falling-over or blackout levels, while being responsible for any other human, is a likely marker for a problem. Which, again, is NOT the same as saying this particular person is a bad person, or should be clapped in irons, or should have her child(ren) removed, all of which are very real risks (especially for less privileged women) and are unacceptable responses.

    I have drunk alcohol during pregnancy and breastfeeding. I don’t think it’s ok to handle and/or breastfeed a newborn baby with a BAC over, say 0.15. I think tiny humans deserve a safer environment than that. This is a lot more than the “three drinks” referred to in comment 22 – we’re using very different definitions of “drunk”! (Which is _part of the problem_.) I’ve been advocating for reasoned, evidence-based, non-wowserish information on alcohol and pregnancy and breastfeeding, and picking apart the shitty-arse “science” on the issue, for a long time. I don’t think it’s necessary or useful to pretend that getting utterly smashed is safe and wonderful any more than it’s necessary to pretend that complete abstinence is the only safe or moral choice. I do, however, recognise and understand the reason for that urge. (And it’s probably yet another reason why the increasingly-popular and fucking stupid abstinence fetish is a Bad Idea.)

  27. Emily
    June 25, 2009 at 7:35 am

    And Lindsay at #11 – NO NO NO; taking the kid away as a knee jerk response to any allegation of abuse or neglect is highly irresponsible, and HARMS CHILDREN. Because many children who are not in any physical danger get taken away from parents simply because they are not wealthy and not white. And guess what – being taken away from loving parents, even imperfect ones, actually harms children. Taking the kid away, even temporarily is a DRASTIC step and should be treated as such.

  28. FridayLeap
    June 25, 2009 at 8:18 am

    I’m British and my kids are late teens/early 20s. When I was breastfeeding I was advised by my midwife (in the UK a specialised nurse and very much part of the State post-natal care system) and the Health Visitor (a community-based nurse) to drink whilst feeding, within moderation.

    The idea is that on those days when it’s frankly all a little too much, you’re stressed, the baby’s stressed and so on, you have a glass of wine about 1/2hr before breastfeeding. Result, chilled calm and happy mother, chilled, calm and sleeping baby. I was just told to limit it to one glass and not to do it to often. Worked like a charm.

    My mother, who formula fed, used gripe water instead. Don’t think she drank it herself though.

  29. umami
    June 25, 2009 at 9:07 am

    Smoking with kids in the house is probably more harmful. I feel so sorry for that woman, and her kid. Sounds to me like in a sane world those police officers would be disciplined for using their position to harrass an innocent person.

    And Kat, holy shit. Is that even legal, what that barista did, to refuse service to someone on the grounds that she’s pregnant?

  30. June 25, 2009 at 9:09 am

    Wow – what is with all the stories in the news this week about “bad mothers?” I think you pointed out the real issue in this story – it’s not whether or not she was drinking, but the fact that our society wants to regulate how people rear their children.

    And just for the record, men technically can breast feed if their mammary glands receive enough stimulation.

  31. Bakka
    June 25, 2009 at 11:11 am

    Another interesting report that has a bit more detail on the case states:

    “Police received a call about a domestic disturbance at Stacey Anvarinia’s home. Anvarinia claimed she was assaulted by her boyfriend. When the officers arrived at her home, they found Anvarinia “extremely intoxicated” and said she was “breast feeding her infant in front of us,” according to the incident report.

    Police called an ambulance to evaluate the infant since alcohol can pass into a child’s system from a mother’s breast milk. The child was taken to the hospital, according to the incident report.”

    From: http://www.nydailynews.com/money/2009/04/29/2009-04-29_north_dakota_resident_stacey_anvarinia_arrested_for_breast_feeding_baby_while_dr.html#ixzz0JRVWULQb&C

    So it seems they did gather some evidence from the baby, though it is not clear what that evidence shows.

    But also, they were investigating a domestic disturbance, and they arrested the victim here.

  32. preying mantis
    June 25, 2009 at 11:42 am

    “I don’t think I’m being unreasonably priggish by saying that that getting solidly hammered to falling-over or blackout levels, while being responsible for any other human, is a likely marker for a problem.”

    No, but it’s problematic to assume that her breastfeeding translates directly into her being the sole person responsible for the infant at that point in time.

    If mom’s partner gets trashed at the 4th of July bbq while mom’s on kid-duty, we tend not to get our knickers in a collective twist because we recognize that them being trashed doesn’t automatically translate into the kids playing in traffic unattended. When mom does the same thing, the knee-jerk societal response is a ZOMGWTFDEADBABIES, because, you know, if mom’s off the clock, clearly it’s a lord-of-the-flies situation. Any other adult in the household, having precisely zero interest or ability when it comes to safe-guarding children, just falls right off the frickin’ map.

    I mean, I occasionally was allowed/asked to bottle-feed my infant siblings when I was 6. Was I providing any further care or acting as the person responsible for the baby right then? Of course not. I was a six-year-old. It’s not entirely analogous to having a mom’s night off but still being needed to feed the baby if you’re breastfeeding, but really, there’s nothing in that blurb that seems to actually say she was engaging in seriously problematic neglect without accepting the axiom of either booze-poisoned breastmilk or immutable maternal responsibility. We just follow the bouncing ball from “mom’s liquored up” to “baby’s gonna get eaten by the neighbor’s dog.”

  33. June 25, 2009 at 4:05 pm

    I abstain completely from alcohol during pregnancy because that has a direct impact on the baby’s blood alcohol level. Doctors cannot say with certainty just what the safe level of alcohol exposure is for the developing baby, so it’s best to just avoid it completely.

    During breastfeeding, however, less than 2% of the alcohol consumed by the mom actually winds up in the breast milk, and only a fraction of that winds up in the baby’s blood. Plus the baby is much more developed than he/she was in utero so the risk is presumably less. So I will have a glass of wine or cocktail.

    The one time I got drunk while I was nursing (it was our anniversary and my DH was sober), I gave my son a bottle of previously pumped breastmilk and then did the “pump-n-dump” thing.

  34. UnHinged Hips
    June 25, 2009 at 6:38 pm

    She would be too intoxicated to safely care for the child LONG before her milk would have a dangerously high alcohol content.

    I’d be interested to see the details of the case- being charged with child neglect if she was caring for the baby while totally plastered seems appropriate. Media sensationalizing aside, I’d like to know how the fact that she was breastfeeding the baby fits into the charges.

  35. Bakka
    June 26, 2009 at 9:59 am

    @UnHinged Hips: I agree that adults should not all be totally plastered when caring for their children, however, the article that I linked to above states that the police came to the house because of a domestic disturbance call. So, at least her partner was there as well. It does not say whether this partner was also drunk, but if so, it is not clear to me why they did not arrest him, too. If he was drunk, then that also seems to be neglectful on his part. If he was not drunk, then it is not clear to me why it was not assumed that he was the one caring for the child at the time.

    I think you are right that the milk would not be at dangerous levels of alcohol.

    But here is the main thing that boggles my mind: She was beaten by her boyfriend and then SHE was arrested, while all reports are completely silent about HIM and what he was or was not doing.


  36. nursingmama
    July 8, 2009 at 11:33 pm


    would it be possible for you to update this story on feministe? aside from all of the points made and the debate re: a woman’s right to breastfeed and consume alcohol, several other details have come out that make very clear the misogynist nature of this case. no consideration from the police for the beating that she took contributing to her behavior? no charges against the abusive boyfriend? no blood alcohol test to determine whether she was even drunk? seriously! how are these supposed law enforcement officers actually defining crime here? a man hitting a woman or mother maybe nursing while drinking? i know which of these scenarios would worry me the most!

    it sounds to me like a) she had a record and is therefore suspect, and automatically guilty of being a “bad mother” and b) the police officers’ delicate sensibilities were offended when she nursed in front of them. unless everything i have read is completely wrong, i cannot find any justice in this situation at all, for the mother or her little baby who has now been ripped from its family, perhaps forever.

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