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


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.

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]No substance treats multiple conditions and diseases that have vastly different causes. That’s pseudoscience, not science.[/pullquote]

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:


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:


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.