We heartily support your breastfeeding efforts. There is no doubt that breastmilk is best for baby and should be the primary form of baby’s nutrition for at least the first several months whenever possible. Among other things, recent studies show that upwards of 40% of the healthy gut flora and fauna found in a baby’s tummy comes from breastmilk, meaning babies who aren’t breastfed miss out on all that good stuff.
That being said, when breastmilk is being pumped, stored, transported and handled, it’s important that you and baby’s care providers do all they can to use proper techniques. Not only will proper handling and storage preserve all the great fats, nutrients, probiotics, antibodies, etc., found in breastmilk, it will also keep it from spoiling such that it upsets baby’s tummy or makes him/her sick.
Guidelines for Proper Breastmilk Storage and Handling
First things first: before you launch into pumping, we want to make sure everything’s going well in your normal, day-to-day breastfeeding sessions. If not, read Breastfeeding Tips for New Mothers, as well as, 10 Tips for Breastfeeding Success. You’ll notice that both articles have a few things in common, including our suggestion that you tap in to your local La Leche League (LLL) chapter. There, you’ll receive all the help, support and referrals you need to make your breastfeeding path as smooth as possible (not to mention joining your local LLL chapter is a wonderful way to connect with other breastfeeding mamas).
It is from the La Leche League guidelines that we’re drawing our own information as we inform you what to do – and what not to do – as you get more comfortable with breastfeeding, pumping and feeding your baby from a bottle. It’s such a sweet way for your child’s non-breastfeeding parent and close family members to bond with him or her, or for you to provide a healthy food supply if/when you and your baby are separated.
Sterilize everything and often
Not much has changed from the 1950s days on this count –hot, soapy water is the simplest and most effective way to sterilize bottles, nipples and breast pump gear. Sanitizing these materials kills harmful bacteria that can – at best – cause tummy discomfort and – at worst – can make your baby very sick.
You can wash your gear by hand, or you can use your dishwashers sanitize setting to do it (paying careful attention to product labels to make sure they’re dishwasher safe). Your hands should also get a good wash with hot water and soap before handling the breast pump apparatus, storage containers, etc., to keep the sterilized equipment sterile.
Pre-label the storage containers with today’s date
Breastmilk needs to be dated so you can keep track of its age if you plan to refrigerate or freeze it. While you might think you’ll go through it fast enough, you never know and you always want to err on the side of caution.
Many parents find it’s easiest to purchase breast milk bags designed for their bottles, making it a one stop sweep to pump, pour, freeze/refrigerate and then load into the bottle body. However, you can choose to store breast milk in any food-grade material containers, with tightly fitted/sealed lids, that have been properly sanitized. Avoid using containers that contain bisphenol A (BPA), identified with a number 3 or 7 in the recycling symbol. A safe alternative is polypropylene, which is soft, semi-cloudy, and has the number 5 recycling symbol and/or the letters PP.
We recommend labeling the container before pumping, that way it’s all ready to go and you’re not trying to juggle your sharpie and a liquid-filled bag that may have a little residual milk spilling down the sides…
Know how long to store breastmilk at specific temperatures
The following is a list of safe storage temps and duration periods. Any breastmilk that is left for longer than these recommendations should be dumped or thrown away. When freezing breastmilk, always be sure to leave at least an inch of room on top to accommodate for the milk’s expansion as it freezes. If the milk spills out and bursts the bag or oozes through the top of the container, it’s considered contaminated and you can’t use it.
Breast milk is good at:
- Room temperature (66° to 78° F), for 4 to 6 hours
- Insulated cooler bag temps (5° to 39° F), for up to 24 hours. Make sure ice packs remain in contact with milk and minimize the amount the bag is opened.
- Refrigerator temps (39° F and lower), for 3 to 8 days (3 is ideal, 8 is pushing it)
- Freezer compartment inside a refrigerator compartment, temps (5°), for 2 weeks*
- Bona fide freezer compartment with its own door (0° F), for 3 to 6 months*
- Deep freezer temps (-4° F), for 6- to 12-months*
*All freezer storage locations assume the breast milk is stored away from the door or openings, towards the back of the freezer section, where the temperature is more consistent. Once frozen milk is thawed out, it can be stored in the fridge or an insulated cooler bag for 24-hours.
Thaw breastmilk thoughtfully
The best way to thaw milk is overnight in the fridge or by submerging the container under cool, running water. Once it’s thawed, gently warm it in warm (not hot) water until it’s comfortable to the wrist. If you can’t feel the drop when it hits your skin, it’s close to body temperature (not too hot and not too cold), which is baby’s preferred drinking temp. Never microwave or boil breastmilk as it can burn your baby’s mouth and ruin the breastmilk’s inherent nutrients and beneficial properties.
Like any other type of milk, human breast milk does have cream that rises to the top of the container. This should be gently shaken or swirled to combine it with the rest of the milk.
We recommend visiting the LLL’s guidelines on storing breastmilk for more details and information.