Melissa Bartick drops her extravagant claims on the benefits of breastfeeding

Sticky note on concrete wall, Be Honest

Dr. Melissa Bartick has probably done more than any other individual to grossly exaggerate the benefits of breastfeeding. That’s why her latest piece, promoting breastfeeding in the age of COVID-19, is remarkable: the spurious claims are gone.

Enumerating the benefits of breastfeeding, Bartick offers this:

breastfeeding reduces the risk of ear infections and diarrhea

What happened to the claims of lives and health dollars saved and severe illness prevented, claims that Bartick has routinely made for the past decade? Either the editors of the Harvard Medical School newsletter removed her typical extravagant claims for lack of evidence, or she has finally admitted to herself that they never existed.

Bartick finally admits the benefits of breastfeeding are limited to a few less colds and episodes of diarrheal illness.

Who is Melissa Bartick, MD? She’s an internist at a small Harvard affiliated hospital who has a personal interest in breastfeeding. In the past 10 years she has produced a series of scientific papers about the purported benefits of breastfeeding — reduced mortality, severe morbidity and healthcare expenditures — based on mathematical models that were never validated.

I first wrote about her, and deconstructed her nonsensical claims, exactly ten years ago. That’s when her first paper, The Burden of Suboptimal Breastfeeding in the United States: A Pediatric Cost Analysis, was published.

Bartick “estimated” that the US could save 900 infant lives and $13 billion if 90% of US women breastfed. These numbers are grossly misleading since not even a single US term infant death has ever been attributed to not breastfeeding and since the purported savings are primarily the “lost wages” of the 900 dead infants.

Bartick has published more papers since then, all using the same faulty modeling. How do we know it’s faulty? Because it makes predictions that can be tested with historical data. Over the past 45+ years, US breastfeeding rates have quadrupled, yet there is no evidence that any term babies’ lives have been saved, any severe illness prevented or any healthcare dollars saved.

Bartick herself admitted as much to me in print almost four years ago. In the comment section of a piece on the Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine blog, I asked Dr. Bartick directly:

Where is the evidence that term babies lives has been saved? Where is the evidence that the diseases you insist are decreased by breastfeeding are actually decreasing as a result of breastfeeding? Where are the billions of healthcare dollars you claimed would be saved as the breastfeeding rates rose?

Her response:

…To my knowledge, no one has actually dug it up yet.

In other words, no one — even Bartick herself — can find any evidence to support her claims. Therefore she stopped making those claims, or the editors of the newsletter refused to allow claims unsubstantiated by scientific evidence.

That hasn’t stopped Bartick from making unsubstantiated assumptions in the current piece, an attempt to justify promoting breastfeeding despite lacking basic knowledge about the deadly COVID-19 virus.

Without any evidence of any kind, Bartick warns:

There have been widespread reports of shortages of retail supplies of infant formula due to hoarding. Given the risk that novel coronavirus infections can spread through formula factories and delivery warehouses, potentially shutting them down, there is a risk of supply chain interruption.

To my knowledge, not a single baby has missed a single bottle of formula so far and formula manufacturers insist that there is no shortage of any kind. No matter. Scaremongering is Dr. Bartick’s tool of choice and if she can’t scaremonger about babies missing out on the “benefits” of breastfeeding, she’s reduced to scaremongering about the supply of formula.

Bartick can’t help herself from making another nonsensical claim:

Breastfeeding is the safest, most reliable method of infant feeding in an emergency.

Breastfeeding is actually the LEAST reliable method of infant feeding in an emergency because it depends entirely on the health and availability of the mother. If the mother is sick or dies, or even if her supply merely drops, the baby starves.

Why do breastfeeding researchers like Bartick exaggerate and mislead over and over again, moving to new exaggerations and falsehoods when caught in old ones? They have become confused about their legal and ethical obligations. They proudly boast about supporting breastfeeding as if any process could or should be supported above the wellbeing of patients themselves.

The truth is that no one knows whether breastfeeding is safe when a mother gets infected with coronavirus. We don’t know if the virus can be transmitted in breastmilk; we don’t know if the risk of infecting the baby outweighs any benefits of breastfeeding; we don’t know if breastfeeding provides any protection from COVID-19.

Those healthcare providers who admit they don’t know put the health and wellbeing of babies above all else; they won’t make recommendations without evidence to back them up. Anyone who makes claims about purported “benefits” of breastfeeding during a novel pandemic, in contrast, is more concerned with promoting breastfeeding than promoting infant health. That’s wrong.

  • Amazed

    OT: People don’t change. I’ve been recently rereading a favourite story of mine, written about 100 years ago by one of our most beloved authors, and it’s like what’s happening now, under my very windows: old people “knowing better” and not taking precautions. Up to gather the believers for Easter (yes, that’s what’s happening on April 12, that’s Orthodox Easter) because the holy temple is a place of healing and not a nest of infections, it’s all the same. People don’t change. Oh they don’t!

    Enjoy The Scourge of God by Elin Pelin. Thanks to the person who took the time to translate it!

    https://www.deviantart.com/mayathehobbit/art/The-Scourge-of-God-216282661

  • rational thinker

    I have already heard a couple people I know saying that their baby is not at risk for contracting COVID-19 because they are EBF.

    • Anna

      The comments on the WHO facebook page shows clearly how many women truly believe their baby cannot be harmed because they will make antibodies for Covid-19 in their milk. They are arguing that the newborns of Covid 19 positive Mothers would certainly be worse off if they were seperated and formula fed than taking the risk of catching the virus. They are basically saying the “risks of formula” are greater than the risk of Covid19. You can bet the extremist lactavist groups will be running that line next.

      • rational thinker

        The actual side effects of formula for a newborn are being settled, well rested, happy, and having full stomach. One thing they need to realize is that after the baby is born they are an individual person with their own immune system and they get very limited- if any antibodies from moms breast milk.
        The WHO needs to stop putting out recommendations for all babies that only actually apply to infants born in a third world country. They need to create web sites for each country so people know what things apply to each different country.

        • Anna

          In this current climate it is even more important IMO that a Mother and Baby are well rested, fed and strong. Imagine if a baby that has been eeking by on insufficient breastmilk gets covid, or a Mum on the absolute edge with no sleep and constant worry and stress trying to express? The advice should be breastfeed if you can, don’t hesitate to top up if you feel it is necessary. I’m singing to the choir though. The WHO only cares about protecting breastfeeding.

  • fiftyfifty1

    “Breastfeeding is the safest, most reliable method of infant feeding in an emergency.”

    So says somebody who has never been through an emergency! You know who HAS been through an emergency? All the refugee mothers who live in my city. What method do they overwhelmingly choose? Combo feeding.

    • AnnaPDE

      After a very rough start, I had semi-decent supply that reached EBF at a point.
      Then I ate food with sage leaves for dinner twice in a row, and suddenly said supply dropped by ~200ml per day for a few days: 1-2 bottles’ worth of milk that suddenly had to come from somewhere other than my breasts.
      “Reliable” means something very different. If a tasty herb can have such a bad impact, how about dehydration, stress and serious illness?

  • FormerPhysicist

    I hope others back off the breast-only rhetoric. I can’t imagine the horror of taking an infant to the hospital for dehydration, jaundice, etc. in the midst of a pandemic – when it all could be prevented with a bottle of formula available at any grocery store or pharmacy.

    • HailieJade

      Major disasters have a habit of opening people’s eyes to what actually matters and what doesn’t. Encouraging nurses to waste their time bullying new mothers into EBF and withholding formula is suddenly going to be seen as a luxury hospitals can no longer afford, and the cult of lactivist fear mongering will be exposed as the indulgent First World Problem it truly is. At least we can only hope that’s how it plays out…

    • Anna

      Yes, I’m very concerned about the Australian context where we normally have home midwife visits and then if the baby is not gaining weight as expected either home nurse visits or you’re advised to go to a community nurse clinic – of course the clinics are closed down and the home visits are being limited. It means that babies that are not gaining may not be identified and Mums at risk may not be identified. If a Mum is concerned she will be told to ring the health clinic hotlines or ABA. If shes lucky she’ll get someone nice who is trained to recognise the red flags. If shes unlucky or goes online to FB groups she’ll get told “scales dont matter” “its normal for newborns to not sleep” “if you’re suicidal have you tried eliminating dairy?”.