Baby likely died from intoxicated mother's breast milk, coroner finds

4:21 pm on 9 August 2019

A Coroner has found a two-month-old baby likely died from drinking breast milk from her intoxicated mother.

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There was a high level of alcohol in Sapphire's system, more than six times the legal blood alcohol limit for driving. Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

Sapphire Rose Williams died in January 2017 with a high level of alcohol in her system.

She was a twin, born premature at 33 weeks and as a result she suffered health issues.

At the time of her death, her mother Janice Tua, told police that the family were homeless and waiting for Housing New Zealand to assign them a house - because of this Sapphire Rose wasn't receiving proper healthcare.

At night, Ms Tua's five children, ranging from one-years-old to six-years-old, would sleep together in one bed while her two-month-old twins shared a cot.

After feeding Sapphire Rose in the night, Ms Tua found her unresponsive in the bed next to her.

She predominantly formula fed the baby, but on this occasion breast-fed her while she waited for formula to cool down.

Ms Tua said she had been drinking the night before Sapphire Rose died, and believed she would have consumed 18 cans of pre-mixed bourbon and cola.

She described herself as tipsy, but "wasn't falling over or anything," going on to explain she "felt hungover, but it wasn't a bad hangover".

The alcohol in Sapphire Rose's system, she accepts, most likely came from her own consumption.

A toxicologist's report found the baby's blood alcohol level was 308 milligrams per 100 millilitres of blood - a high reading that prompted a second test, but returned the same results.

It was more than six times the legal blood alcohol limit for driving.

The doctor who completed the post mortem, Dr Simon Stables, said the alcohol findings were difficult to explain as there was none found in the stomach, just around the heart and liver of the baby.

The coroner, Debra Bell, found Sapphire Rose's direct cause of death could not be ascertained but noted the very high level of alcohol in the baby's blood and a dangerous sleeping environment were significant contributing factors.

Ricky Houghton from Northland's He Korowai Trust said the baby's death was tragic.

"She's an innocent victim of families who are living in very, very overcrowded situations where they're forced to socialise together there, but they cannot escape outside interference.

"I'm so sad for baby Sapphire."

Mr Houghton said young mums needed support.

"There are some lovely parenting programmes out there, but nothing beats the love of your immediate family and aunties to encourage you to breast feed, to encourage you and warn you of the dangers of what could happen if you feed bubba after consuming things like alcohol."

The Ministry of Health advises breastfeeding mums to avoid alcohol.

But the ministry said if they do drink, they shouldn't feed their baby for at least a couple of hours.

Otago University researcher Sherly Parackal said there was no data about whether that message was getting passed on to mums.

"Whether this is getting communicated by health professionals, maybe the midwives in the early stages of pregnancy, the Plunket nurses later on and the GPs to the women is something we don't know in New Zealand."

Northland District Health Board community paediatrician Ailsa Tuck said alcohol consumption can also affect a mum's ability to respond to her baby.

"We know that parents are exhausted at the best of times, so it's really around that wider issue of support for parents and their capacity to parent."

But Dr Tuck said the coroner's report doesn't paint the full picture of what was happening in Sapphire's whanau - and people shouldn't rush to judge.

"I think it's very unhelpful and actually potentially damaging for us to judge people on their individual behaviour without understanding the wider context and we do know that a more compassionate approach and a strength-based approach is likely to achieve better outcomes for our whanau."

While the coroner didn't make any specific recommendations, she stressed the importance of breast feeding mothers avoiding alcohol at any stage.

She said a copy of her findings would be sent to the Ministry of Health.