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.