Don’t squirt breastmilk on it! It’s not a cure for everything.

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Breastfeeding research keeps veering into pseudoscience.

It’s not merely that breastfeeding research like most pseudoscience research starts with the conclusion — breastfeeding is beneficial — and then works backwards to find data to support it. That has led to persistently massive exaggeration of the benefits and utterly ignoring the risks.

No substance treats multiple conditions and diseases that have vastly different causes. That’s pseudoscience, not science.

The chief indicator that much of breastfeeding “science” is largely pseudoscience is that breastmilk is touted as the cure for everything.

For example, a physician asked other physicians on Twitter:

Drs of Twitter! If your child had developed a mild superficial fungal infection over the weekend, would you buy some Canesten 1% (available from a pharmacist without prescription) or would you feel you needed to take your child to a walk-in centre for a formal diagnosis & script?

And Dr. Natalie Shenker, MD, PhD replied:

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Hey, hope the little one is ok. Have you tried putting breastmilk on? Contains fungicide components (probably for just this sort of thing)

Let’s leave aside for the moment the unwarranted assumption that every mother has breastmilk on hand. Why is Dr. Shenker recommending it?

She sent a variety of tweets in explanation:

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It’s has fungistatic effects!

There are presumably multiple factors that also combat pathogenic fungi!

It promotes the seeding of helpful fungi!

She offered citations to support her claims but as another individual noted:

The first paper is a study of isolates from human saliva being used on fungal samples (not infections on actual people). Do you have any data that supports the topical use of human milk on fungal infections in actual humans?

That’s a classic pseudoscience tactic: citing research that has nothing to do with the issue under discussion.

And Dr. Shenker responded with another pseudoscience dodge:

I did say data was scanty but as I’m sure you know, historically lab studies seldom get rolled into clinical trials in this field.

Well, yes. That’s because the results of in vitro studies rarely translate to effective treatment for humans.

Lots of things — like orange juice, for example — have fungistatic properties properties in vitro, but we don’t recommended treating fungal dermatitis by bathing in orange juice.

Sadly, however, breastmilk has become the miracle cure for everything.

As Dr. Steve Novella has written on Science Based Medicine:

One common feature of pseudoscience is that proponents of a specific belief tend to exaggerate its scope and implications over time…

How does that happen?

[T]here is a tendency for dubious treatments to undergo indication creep over time. A treatment that starts out being used for one specific indication has a growing list of conditions it can treat or cure, even conditions with very different real underlying causes.

This happens because the process that is being used to determine if the treatment works is flawed in the first place. Typically unscientific treatments are based upon anecdotal evidence, which is susceptible to placebo effects. Proponents are not being skeptical, nor are they conducting the kinds of studies that are capable of showing that the treatment does not work.

In fact the process they use is designed to show that the treatment does work. Therefore, no matter what they try it for, it will seem to work. They may naively come to believe that it works for everything. In some cases they may then backfill an explanation for why it works for everything …

Breastmilk might be helpful in treating certain kinds of dermatitis. In vitro studies do sometimes yield treatments that work in human beings. But no substance treats multiple conditions and diseases that have vastly different causes. That’s pseudoscience, not science.

Why insist that breastmilk is a miracle cure for everything? Marketing!

…If you have a product to sell, you want that product to have as wide a market as possible. In medicine this means as many indications for your treatment as possible. In fact, why limit your market at all? If your treatment works for every indication in every population, then you have maximized your potential customer base.

This does not necessarily mean that those selling panaceas are always knowingly lying … There is a powerful motivation to believe that your treatment has wide-ranging implications. If you discover a treatment that is effective for some cases of athletes foot, that is an achievement and might even be highly profitable. But if you discover the treatment for all infections, or all cancers, or all human disease, then you should become world famous and fabulously wealthy. This is a powerful motivation to believe.

Even legitimate scientists fall prey to the allure of believing their discovery is bigger than it actually was. They have the rest of the scientific community to give them a reality check.

Marketing has led lactation professionals to label colostrum or even breastmilk itself as “liquid gold.” Marketing has led lactation researchers to make outsize claims about the benefits of breastmilk for infants. And marketing has led these same researchers to imagine that there isn’t a medical problem that can’t be improved by squirting breastmilk on it.

Breastmilk is food. It has some benefits, but when people have access to clean water to prepare formula those benefits are trivial.

It’s not a cure-all and if breastfeeding researchers wish to be taken seriously, they must stop pretending that it is.

  • Gæst

    I haven’t been by in a long time and seem to have forgotten my Disqus password, but a frustratingly gullible parent has surfaced on my social media and now I’m back again. Unlike my friends, I’m not chemical-phobic, but if general anesthesia during c-sections were linked, wouldn’t rates of autism have been higher in the past, when general anesthesia was the norm for childbirth? I know that it was far less recognized in children in the past as well, which may have obscured the link, but this is not my area of expertise.

    https://www.timesofisrael.com/israeli-study-links-autism-to-general-anesthesia-in-c-sections/?fbclid=IwAR23H_FHoy8VH8MKpyQfi14pA0n9ibUHbaV6i54QpK27F-Wha3TUZGz10XA

  • Heidi

    But I thought breast milk was supposed to work from the inside out with all its speshul immunity sparkly micro-unicorns and this baby would be immune to any fungal infection by virtue of having been breastfed. . .so obvs this doctor wasn’t breastfeeding so she didn’t have breast milk on hand, Dr. Shenker.

    • AirPlant

      Well you see pink eye is a localized infection rather than systemic so in order to get the disease fighting sparkles into the milk you have to poke the baby’s eye with your nipple.

      That’s just science.

      • mabelcruet

        Well, I suppose seeding the baby’s face with vaginal fluid is now a thing, so poking them in the eye with a squirty nipple isn’t going to be far behind.

  • MaineJen

    I had an actual pediatrician suggest using breastmilk to unclog my baby’s blocked tear duct, years ago. (His eye was all goopy but it wasn’t infected). Did I try it? Yes, I did. Did it work? No, it absolutely did not work. Did I feel slightly foolish afterward? You’d better believe I did.

    • mabelcruet

      It always struck me as being along the same lines as your granny or mum making you lick a handkerchief for a quick clean up as a small child. Kind of like ‘it’s spit, it’s natural, must be safe, and it’s handy’.

    • Kim Thomas

      Interestingly, we had exactly the same advice. It didn’t work. Oddly the thing that did work was when I took my baby (then aged eight months) for her first swimming lesson. We had to dunk our babies under water and as I did so she kept her eyes wide open. After that the blockage just disappeared.

  • demodocus

    No, cpd/marijuana is the cure-all!

  • mabelcruet

    OT, but a bit more pregnancy woo: closing the bones post-natal massage.

    http://wendyproctor.org.uk/closing-the-bones-ceremony/

    Maybe its just me, but if you have adrenaline crystals on your hips as a result of unresolved trauma, I suggest you don’t pop them. A surge of adrenaline will give you a cardiac arrhythmia. Mind you, getting your bladder back in the right place and stopping it from wandering around your pelvis sounds rather adrenaline-inducing as well.

    • KQ Not Signed In

      Well shit, here I thought it cost 1,000 Slayer Bounty points to get Adrenaline Crystals. And I could have been popping them off my post-childbearing hips?!?!?

      Related: Does this mean that “Birth Worker” is going to be a new character class? And if so, would they fall under Cleric or Rogue?

      https://runescape.wiki/w/Adrenaline_crystal

      • PeggySue

        Well, mercy me. Adrenaline crystals are a thing! Well, sort of a thing.

    • rational thinker

      You can sell anything if you claim its an old foreign tradition.

      • mabelcruet

        Absolutely. And if all the websites that mention it have exactly the same spiel and the same ‘facts’ so that it is blatantly obvious they’ve all cut and pasted the same blurb from one source, you know its a scam. There’s nothing I can find about it mentioned in any literature other than on the websites of the various doulas flogging it as a folk treatment.

        • rational thinker

          “After the abdominal massage I wrap the robozo’s around her head, shoulders, hips, knees and feet, then cover her in a blanket.”

          This sounds more like an attempt at ancient Egyptian mummification than a massage.

          • mabelcruet

            Or a re-birthing ceremony…

            Actually, I’ve just had an idea that might make me rich. How about a birthing ceremony for mothers? A special ceremony to celebrate their birth in changing from woman to mother? Ignore the baby, that’s irrelevant really, let’s celebrate the birth of a new Mother. I’m sure I could think of a few folk practices to cobble an ancient and mystical ritual together, get a few herbs burning in a fire pit and open the maternal chakra to the universe with crystals. BRB, off to write a business plan….

          • AirPlant

            I have told my husband that after we get home from the hospital my dearest wish is to hand him the baby, get myself the biggest glass of wine and sleep for however long it takes to feel human again.

            Is that a good enough ceremony?

          • mabelcruet

            Hmmm…throw some healing crystals into the wine (carnelian is supposed to stop bleeding, that might be a useful one), and drink it whilst moving three times widdershins then release a primal scream. That should do it…

          • AirPlant

            Don’t think I wouldn’t go hog wild with a hot glue gun to make a proper Game of Thrones style chalice to make this official but I will say that the primal scream sounds like something that would interfere with the wine drinking. What if I just lie prone and topless instead?

          • mabelcruet

            OK, the baby can do the primal screaming for you instead. You can just anoint yourself with colostrum.

          • PeggySue

            As long as you lie prone and topless with the baby at the breast, I think all the goddesses will approve.

          • KeeperOfTheBooks

            My Seriously Awesome Hubby had a bottle of my very favorite wine waiting in the cupholder when he picked Baby Books The Third and yours truly up from the hospital post-delivery. This is not the only reason he’s a Seriously Awesome Hubby, but it’s high on the list!

          • AirPlant

            This is probably reductionist and sexist but he honestly sounds like the MVP of husbanding.

          • KeeperOfTheBooks

            Well, IMNSHO, he *is* the MVP of husbanding, so I’m not gonna argue that at all. 😉

          • rational thinker

            There’s a good idea. Can I help, I can stand in the corner and chant random shit.

          • demodocus

            please say it’ll be in Klingon!

          • MaineJen

            K’Plaugh!!

          • mabelcruet

            I found a Klingon translator online

            Welcome to the new mother and baby is…

            nuqneH chu’ SoS ghu ‘ej

            Or if you want to be more specific, puqbe’ means daughter, and puqloD is son.

          • KQ Not Signed In

            Beat me to it. Ghuy’cha’!

            (I looked it up, that roughly translates to damn it)

          • mabelcruet

            Have you had children? Only mothers who have given birth can commune with the maternal world spirit and channel re-birth energies to welcome the new Mother into the Mysteries. I’ll probably need a chorus of three to do the chanting and channelling. Or maybe I should go for the standard Maiden, Mother and Crone? Hmm, making this crap up is harder than it seems!

          • rational thinker

            I had two vaginal births, but I did not breastfeed and I had epidurals so that probably disqualifies me.

          • mabelcruet

            I’m afraid it does. An epidural blocks the flow of life energy around your body, so that means all the pent up trauma can’t be dissipated. You possibly could have dispelled the negative energy tones if you’d encapsulated the placenta, but its too late now.

          • AnnaPDE

            Wait no, isn’t it the other way around? I have heaps of pent up maternal spirit energy left in me because between a spinal block and c-section, it really had nowhere to come out!

          • mabelcruet

            It comes out your nipples, where do you think the milk magic originates?!

          • AnnaPDE

            That’s what I mean! From the pent up goddess energy in the breasts. That’s where most people have any left…
            Think about it: Babies, even in the most natural of circumstances, are never burn through the nipples. So that energy can’t come out and turns into milk. But of course being a doctor you wouldn’t know this – such deep and true knowledge has to be gained by a half asleep lay person intuiting it!

          • PeggySue

            Don’t forget yoni cupcakes.

          • BH

            Re-birthing ceremonies are actually a thing! Not in the way you’re suggesting but about “reclaiming” your birth after a disappointing birth experience. https://membersarea.sacredhealing.org/bonuses/rebirthing-reclaiming-ritual.

          • StephanieJR

            The fuck did I just read?

          • BH

            Yep, crazy isn’t it? There is so much wrong with this I don’t even know where to start. It’s so fake, like having a do-over wedding day if your real wedding didn’t go to plan. If a woman has a truly traumatic birth experience then she needs professional counselling/debriefing, not this! If the birth is just disappointing I wonder how much of that disappointment is caused by unrealistic expectations set by the NCB industry.

          • rational thinker

            This is messed up, and can I call bullshit on the whole newborn breast crawl thing. They cant even hold their own heads up when they are born.

          • Cristina

            Hahaha, I was reclining with my oldest when he was a couple weeks old and he used his legs to push his way up my body to my neck. It freaked me out and all I could think was “please don’t bite me.”

          • mabelcruet

            Bugger. That’s my pension plan screwed.

    • alongpursuit

      Does she help with wandering uteri as well? I hear it’s the cure for hysteria…

    • Cristina

      Why are all of these rituals always done as a group? And what bones, exactly, does she think she’s closing?

      • mabelcruet

        I know things get a bit stretched down there, and pelvic girdle pain is a very real issue for some women, but they make it sound as though your legs are at risk of dropping off.

        I’m afraid I have very little patience for this sort of woo. I can completely see that for a new mother, getting a massage and being taken care of for a while might be nice-I’d imagine its a welcome break from all the new responsibility and a bit of an indulgence at a time when you’re probably knackered and overwhelmed. If they could be honest and say ‘this will help relax you and give you a bit of a lift’, but instead they tart it all up in flowery ritualistic language and pretend its something ancient and mystical, whereas actually its just a bit of self care.

    • PeggySue

      How can you tell if it’s wandering around? Or is that just assumed if you’ve had a baby?

  • Vaccines are NOT lollipops to be randomly given to kids.

    You should NOT get a vaccine from anyone that is NOT a licensed, competent medical doctor. Forget getting any shot from places like Walmart and CVS.

    A very thorough medical history should be done along with the child’s health taken into serious consideration before administering any type of medicine, especially vaccines. Research the vaccine thoroughly and double check any possible reaction that your child may have, especially with family history.

    There are too many children that are having serious side effects because of the dangerously laxed attitude concerning vaccines.

    DO NOT let anyone coerce you into making an uninformed decision.

    Research and make the best educated decision for your child.

    Again! Vaccines are NOT lollipops! Vaccines are a very powerful medicine that should be administered cautiously! They do have side serious side effects that should be taken into serious consideration.

    We need to STOP the laxed attitude about vaccines. Powerful medicine deserves intense scrutiny and research.

    We can all be a part of keeping more of our community healthy by doing our diligence and taking health and vaccines very seriously.

    Happy health to all of you.

    • rational thinker

      We are not even talking about vaccines on this thread. Stop it please!

    • PeggySue

      ohfergodsake, go away.

    • Amy Tuteur, MD

      Stick to the vaccine posts or your comments will be deleted.

    • MaineJen

      Oh FFS. Go away, AntiVaxBot.

    • Russell Jones

      You forgot to upvote your own post there, chief.

      • rational thinker

        I think he finally gave up. Have a look at his diqus profile he is now trolling the weather west blog claiming the government is controlling the weather.

        • MaineJen

          Well he can tell the government to send some sunshine over my way. It feels like it’s been raining continuously for a month.

          • rational thinker

            I think I will be ordering a temp in the mid 60’s with a nice cool breeze.

        • Russell Jones

          lol

          Knuckleheads gotta knucklehead.

    • Heidi

      Randomly? LOL! As if one takes their kid to the doctor and the doctor just finds a syringe and injects. “Oh, here’s a dusty old small pox vaccine from the 60s and I got a discount on some slightly expired parvovirus vaccines. I’m just going to give those for funsies!”

    • Merrie

      Who do you think gives vaccines at pharmacies? What training do you think they have?

  • Cartman36

    Isn’t it an ethical violation to recommend an unproven treatment when there is an effective, affordable, and proven treatment available (i.e. topical anti-fungal creams). If not, it should be…

    • mabelcruet

      The General Medical Council is the UK licensing and disciplinary body for doctors. In their ‘Good Practice’ guidance, they state:

      “In providing clinical care you must:

      a. prescribe drugs or treatment, including repeat prescriptions, only when you have adequate knowledge of the patient’s health, and are satisfied that the drugs or treatment serve the patient’s needs.

      b. provide effective treatments based on the best available evidence

      f. check that the care or treatment you provide for each patient is compatible with any other treatments the patient is receiving, including (where possible) self-prescribed over-the-counter medications”

      So, technically, in suggesting breast milk, she is not providing an effective treatment based on the best available evidence, so she is acting contrary to the GMC regulations. The GMC has a social media policy, and says that if you have identified yourself as a doctor, any information provided online via social media is regarded the same as information provided face to face to a patient. By naming herself as MD, PhD, she’s clearly identifying herself as a doctor, and therefore the public have a right to expect her to provide information within her area of expertise and that is based on best available evidence. If she’d said ‘I’m a mum, and I tried this’, she’d probably be within the guidelines, but identifying herself as a doctor publicly, she has to be bound by GMC regulations.

  • mabelcruet

    They are doubling down on their claims. The more they are challenged, the more they are presented with evidence, the more they will continue to exaggerate the benefits of breast feeding for mother and baby. They can’t acknowledge that their belief is built on shaky foundations, which is why any challenge is met with verbal aggression, name calling and bullying. It’s a cult, not a scientific movement, and like a cult they will invent the science, and twist and torture the data to make it say what they want it to say. Look at that revolting spit back theory-the one where they claim the breast produces antibodies to infectious organisms it detects in the saliva that it sucks up and samples from the baby. Absolutely no proof, and yet it’s been adopted in breast feeding cultist language as ‘the mothers breast tailor the milk to individually suit each child and changes according to their needs’.

    And, like a cult, they will turn on apostates and denounce them even more fiercely than they do non-believers.

    • Sarah

      I’d love to see a post examining the origins of that spitback theory. Like the one Breastfeeding Without BS did on food before one is just for fun.

    • alongpursuit

      Thank you, mabelcruet, for all your comments. I really appreciate your take on all of this. As someone who went to hell and back trying to breastfeed with a dismally insufficient supply, worrying the whole time I was damaging my baby permanently with formula, I am forever grateful for those who question the basis of all these dubious claims. Thank you thank you thank you.

      • mabelcruet

        I daren’t stick my head too far above the parapet, as I’m still a working NHS doctor, and I have seen colleagues being hung out to dry for making critical comments about midwifery practice and related issues. The birth lobby in the UK is extremely powerful, and senior midwives have shown absolutely no hesitation in making formal complaints against those they consider to be a threat. Look at the way in which James Titcombe was treated-bullied, harassed, threatened, even to the extent that the author of the Kirkup report (into the deaths of mothers and babies in Barrow-in-Furness) commented on it. They routinely will copy in statements, blog posts and tweets to a person’s employer or governing body, I’ve even seen one midwife ‘leader’ copy in the health minister in responding to an obstetrician that she considered was challenging her. They are very quick to accuse people of bullying, whilst being the worst online bullies I’ve seen.

        I work, and have worked, with some great midwives over the years. Women (and one man) who genuinely wanted to be the support and help that their patients needed. Unfortunately, they are badly let down by their leaders who behave appallingly, who profess to be ‘with woman’ but only if you do what they want you to do, and who demonstrate some of the worst bullying and mobbing behaviour I’ve seen online. They have absolutely no shame, they gaslight, they undermine, they lie and manipulate, and their enablers and supporters act as though this behaviour is acceptable. They have their bands of flying monkeys-any person, medical or otherwise, who dares to contradict them or challenge them gets mobbed by the flying monkeys.

        So its been up to a few brave souls to challenge them-Hadley Freeman has had her run-ins with them (and they complained about her to her newspaper), loss parents (James Titcombe, among others, and they complained about him to his employer), a couple of vocal obstetricians (and they copied in the dept of health, the royal college of obs and gynae and the health minister in tweet exchanges with them). Until I retire completely and take myself off the GMC register, its too risky to be open about issues at times, which is absolutely not the way it should be. Dr Tuteur is immune given that she has no professional body to report her to, which I suspect seriously annoys them!

  • StephanieJR

    Hell, coconut oil is probably more effective, considering its worship in ‘all natural’ circles.

    • alongpursuit

      My baby had a blocked tear duct in one eye. LC told me to put breast milk in her eye!

      • My neighbor who just left used to do that for her boys’ pinkeye. She also gave them amber necklaces. Oh, well, at least she vaccinates them, and when the garlic or breastmilk or whatever don’t work she takes them to the doctor for actual antibiotics.

        • mabelcruet

          Breast milk for pinkeye has been around for years as an old wives tale. It’s not effective at all against proper conjunctivitis, and for sticky eyes due to the common cold and that sort of thing, they clear up on their own anyway, and milk doesn’t speed that up. Plus breast milk contains viable commensal bacteria, so squirting bacterial laden milk into an eye thats already infected really makes no sense at all.

          • Indeed. And what about all the sugar in breastmilk? Surely that’s not a good thing to dump on an infected eye/ear?

          • mabelcruet

            I’d imagine breast milk would make a pretty good culture medium in a microbiology lab if they ran out of Agar jelly.

          • demodocus

            I prefer my epic microbic battles royale to be in a petri dish. As God intended 😉

      • AirPlant

        I think I read that in some clinical trial there was limited success with breast milk for conjunctivitis but only if the breast milk in question was actually colostrum.

        So if your kid has pinkeye in that particular 3-5 day window go nuts?

        • mabelcruet

          I’ve a vague recollection about gonorrhea and colostrum-gonorrhea causes early onset pinkeye and colostrum is active against the organism, so maybe your last sentence should be ‘if your kid has pinkeye in that particular 3-5 day window AND its pinkeye due to gonorrhea, go nuts?

          I’d still want the antibiotics too though.

          • AirPlant

            Oh for sure. And since colostrum is not even generally copious enough to prevent weight loss in the first few days I would still say a better use for it is actually feeding your kid

      • MaineJen

        LOL! See my comment above…

        Did I ever feel stupid after trying that one.

      • AnnaPDE

        Same here.
        My psychiatrist SIL (along with GP husband!) recommended the breastmilk in eye treatment. Did exactly nothing.
        Other SIL, herself a GP, just shook her head when she visited a week later and the eye was still goopy. Then she had a few good wipes with a saline-soaked cotton wool ball to unblock the tear duct, and bye-bye eye goop forever. (Well, or, until the next eye infection, but in 3+ years there wasn’t a single one.)

        • EmbraceYourInnerCrone

          Umm, doesn’t squirting something with tons of sugar in it into an already infected eye seem like a BAD idea?! Then again I’m just a computer tech..

          • Azuran

            Well, there is LITTLE bit of truth behind it. Honey (or sugar if you are cheap and don’t like the mess) is often used to help in the treatment of infected wounds (although usually in combination with systemic antibiotics) Because the ridiculously high level of sugar (which is about 80% for honey) makes it very hard for pretty much any kind of pathogen to grow in it, which is one of the reason why it lasts stupidly long.
            But breast milk (at slightly lower than 10%) has nowhere near a high enough sugar content and is actually a super good growth medium (I mean seriously, we don’t even drink milk that was left on the counter for a few hours)

          • mabelcruet

            Noel Fitzpatrick (the bionic vet who does amazingly high tech orthopedic surgery and prosthetic surgeries for animals) uses it for stubborn infections, along with antibiotics-he uses manuka honey, I don’t know if that’s better than your average supermarket brand (its a lot more expensive, I know that). He also uses leeches occasionally-he had a patient with a leg that was healing badly with really poor blood flow and getting swollen, so he stuck a few leeches on, and that saved the leg. So olde worlde medieval treatment still works!

          • Azuran

            I know they were doing studies on humans on different kind of honey at some point, but I don’t know what conclusion they reached. But I doubt any difference would be significant enough to justify a large price difference.
            At some point I had a joke with my techs about using maple syrup (because Canada) instead of honey. But I couldn’t find any study about that, so sadly I had to give up the idea.

          • swbarnes2

            My off-the-top of my head memory is that breastmilk might work for blocked tear ducts, but is not a great idea for infections for just that reason.

          • AnnaPDE

            In hindsight it was obviously stupid and why would it do anything to gunk that just needs to be physically massaged out? But when you haven’t slept more than a few hours in days and this is your first kid, then advice from medically trained fellow parents who already got 2 kids through to teenager years seems worth a try.