I'm a breastfeeding mother and I drink alcohol. I enjoy a glass of sauvignon blanc while relaxing on a patio with my mommy friends and our babies. Occasionally I order a glass with lunch. I even went on a winery tour in New Zealand while in my first trimester and I tasted the wine. Gasp! Why do I feel guilty admitting that?
I feel guilty because there is a growing climate of judgment around mothers who drink, especially while breastfeeding. A mother was thrown in jail and charged with endangering the welfare of her child because she breastfed after enjoying a beer at bar in Arkansas. France launched a zero-alcohol campaign showing fetuses swimming in red wine or a beer bottle. An LCBO campaign featuring a naked pregnant woman implied you don't love your body or your baby if you have a glass of wine.
Rather than supporting a woman's right to make informed choices in coordination with her doctor, these examples suggest women who are breastfeeding or pregnant should never drink alcohol.
Right here in Toronto, moms face harassment for their choice to drink. Organizers of MomsTO's A Very Mommy Wine Festival in Toronto were flooded with hateful messages. The mom volunteers were shocked and frightened by emails threatening lawsuits and picketing. An editorial commentary by author Ann Dowsett Johnston in the Toronto Startargeted their event.
"This is not harmless fun," she wrote. "More than one young mother I know drove drunk with children in the car; more than one gave birth to a child with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. And many more ended up with serious alcohol problems. Their children suffered."
The fearmongering has got to stop. Don't get me wrong, alcoholism is a serious addiction with serious consequences. But targeting all new mothers with these kind of inflammatory arguments is not responsible.
Mothers are hardly dangerous or negligent because they like to drink occasionally. Moralizing about alcohol consumption has no place in a modern discussion of motherhood. It assumes mothers can't be trusted to drink carefully and modestly or to properly take care of themselves and their babies. Why do we frighten and bully new mothers who are already vulnerable and insecure?
Breastfeeding is anxiety-inducing enough without worrying about modest alcohol consumption. Am I producing enough milk? Is my baby growing properly? Am I eating enough vegetables? Should I keep breastfeeding even though it's painful? Am I a bad mother? Now we need to be watching over our shoulders while we sip our chardonnay? I don't think so.
"When a breastfeeding mother drinks occasionally and limits her consumption to one drink," reports the International La Leche League, "the amount of alcohol her baby receives has not been proven to be harmful." The organization regularly reviews the scientific literature available on the subject. According to their website, study after study has found the absolute amount of alcohol transferred into breastmilk is generally low and the amount is not considered harmful to the infant.
"Reasonable alcohol intake should not be discouraged at all," according to Dr. Jack Newman, a Canadian physician who has written several books about breastfeeding and runs the International Breastfeeding Centre. He explains the math: one hour after sipping three drinks, the amount of alcohol in breast milk is equivalent to a 0.07498-proof beverage. That's like mixing one shot of rum with 73 cans of Coke.
"As is the case with most drugs, very little alcohol comes out in the milk," he wrote. "The mother can take some alcohol and continue breastfeeding as she normally does. Prohibiting alcohol is another way we make life unnecessarily restrictive for nursing mothers."
Breastfeeding is anxiety-inducing enough without worrying about modest alcohol consumption.
Motherhood can be extremely hard. Mothers need every social opportunity we can find to prevent isolation and depression. Up to 20 per cent of American mothers suffer from postpartum depression, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, and many more suffer from anxiety. Depression and anxiety can cause mothers to lose interest in social activities and withdraw from others. Why would we cut those women off from important social opportunities in their communities just because alcohol is served?
"Fearmongering alive and well," says Barrie-based doula Jan Ferguson. "What boggles me is that pregnant and new moms are targeted when there are so many truly at-risk children who are failed by the 'system' because fixing their problems is too complicated or messy. We should be building each other up, not tearing each other down."
Bottom line: let's stop pretending like a glass of wine is the problem. Mothers drink and the vast majority of us do it carefully and in moderation. There's no shame in that.
Lysanne Louter is the founder of FRANNIE + LILO, a company that makes ethical, eco-conscious and empowering shirts for mamas and babies. She was a sponsor and vendor at MomsTO's A Very Mommy Wine Festival.
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