Drunken breast-feeding arrest touches off debate

July 6, 2009 (BISMARCK, N.D.) Officers arrested the woman, who later pleaded guilty to child neglect and faces up to five years in prison. Now her case has touched off a debate among moms about breast-feeding, alcohol -- and privacy.

Since Anvarinia's arrest, blogs have been abuzz with comments questioning whether breast-feeding mothers could risk criminal charges if they drink even modest amounts. Authorities insist police were right to make the arrest, even if the mother had not been breast-feeding, out of concern for the child's welfare.

"Since when is breast-feeding while drunk a crime?" said Dr. Amy Tuteur, a retired obstetrician and gynecologist in Boston who has been following the case on her Web site, the Skeptical OB.

If the 26-year-old woman had been bottle-feeding her baby, "no one would have bothered to check what was in the bottle," Tuteur said. "You can do a lot more damage by mixing formula wrong."

Medical research on alcohol and breast-feeding is murky, mainly because the issue is difficult to study. Researchers cannot ethically conduct controlled research on intoxicated women who breast-feed. So doctors rely on anecdotal evidence.

The breast-feeding advocacy group La Leche League International advises women to nurse their children only when "completely sober."

In published advice to mothers, the group says: "Drinking to the point of intoxication, or binge drinking, by breast-feeding mothers has not been adequately studied. Since all of the risks are not understood, drinking to the point of intoxication is not advised."

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, said the group considers limited alcohol consumption compatible with breast-feeding.

"A mother who becomes intoxicated should not breast-feed," said Winter, who also heads the division of adolescent medicine at Cooper University Hospital in Camden, N.J. "After drinking one glass of wine, a woman should abstain from breast-feeding for two to three hours."

La Leche, which knew of no similar cases to Anvarinia's, says the effect on a baby is directly related to how much the mother drinks.

In general, "Feed the baby first, and then wait until it leaves your bloodstream," McCallister said.

The group says it takes up to three hours for one serving of beer or wine to be eliminated from the body of a 120-pound woman.

Melissa Peat, a mother of three in Topeka, Kan., said she has had an "occasional beer or glass of wine" while breast-feeding. Peat said the topic of alcohol and breast milk comes up in conversations with other mothers.

"The conventional wisdom among breast-feeding mothers is that alcohol, coffee, spicy food -- everything in moderation is acceptable for the breast-feeding mom," said Peat, 32, a former high school math and science teacher who now is a stay-at-home mom.

Arrests involving intoxicated breast-feeding mothers have been difficult to prosecute.

The city of Bethel, Alaska, paid two women $2,500 apiece in 1992 to settle a lawsuit they filed over their arrest on charges of endangering their children by drinking alcohol before breast-feeding. The women had been charged with misdemeanor reckless endangerment in 1990, but prosecutors later dropped the charges, saying no crime had been committed.

It's unclear how much Anavarina had to drink. Police never conducted a blood-alcohol test. Investigators believed she was drunk, and her arrest on a charge of child abuse and neglect did not require a test.

"The majority of our problems are caused by alcohol," said Grand Forks Police Capt. Kerwin Kjelstrom. "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."

When police came to the home on April 13, Anvarinia, who had a criminal record, told them that she had been assaulted by her boyfriend. A police report said she had swelling on her nose and chin and a small scratch on her left cheek.

The boyfriend was not home and has not been charged, and authorities have not said who has custody of the child. Anvarinia's court-appointed attorney, David Ogren, did not return repeated telephone calls.

Authorities insist the woman's decision to breast-feed was not the only factor in her arrest.

"This case is more than just the breast-feeding. It was the totality of the circumstances," said Grand Forks Police Lt. Rahn Farder. "It is quite unusual for a mother to be breast-feeding her child as we are conducting an investigation, whether she was intoxicated or not."

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