I had a friend who, to avoid having to do a dash down two floors to the refrigerator in the middle of the night, would keep a bottle of expressed breast milk in a silver champagne high hat in the nursery! Talk about style! Whether or not that was a good idea is a whole other issue.
Breast milk isn’t particularly fussy—it can even be kept at room temperature for several hours—but like all products of its kind, it can spoil or be contaminated. Remember, freshly expressed milk is better than refrigerated and refrigerated is better than frozen, but it’s all good if it’s handled correctly.
Here are the what and how to handling and storing breast milk so its safe for your baby to drink.
Picking the right equipment
- A breast pump — there are so many models these days, so look through all the details. Depending on when, where and how often you will use the pump, you can go from a manual hand pump to a deluxe double pump with a battery pack!
- Collection bags or bottles — use containers that are made precisely for this purpose, to avoid contamination issues.
- A cooler — if you’re pumping away from home, you’ll need this to store and transport the milk bags / bottles, until you can get them home. Make sure you have ice packs too!
- Bottles and nipples — if you’re pumping and feeding with a bottle, you’ll need bottles, nipples and cleaning supplies for these.
How and where to store breast milk
There are two things that can affect stored breast milk: temperature and contamination.
In terms of temperature, You can keep breast milk as follows:
- Fresh and at room temperature: for up to 6 hours, but limiting the time to 4 hours is better.
- In a cooler: with ice packs? Up to 1 day.
- Fridge: up to 5 days, but 3 days is ideal.
- Freezer: up to 9 months, but 6 months is ideal.
Always place the breast milk in the coldest part of any location, which is usually towards the back of a fridge or freezer, to avoid temperature fluctuations that could affect the milk. Milk stored in the door of the refrigerator, for example, will be subject to temperature fluctuations every time someone opens it!
Make sure you label the containers with the date it was pumped, so that you can be sure not to keep it too long.
To avoid issues with contamination of the milk, consider the following:
- Use milk storage bags that are manufactured to be completely free of contaminants.
- Alternatives? Plastic or glass containers. These need to be properly cleaned and stored closed when not in use. Make sure that plastic containers are always BPA free.
- Make sure that whichever container you choose, it is properly sealed before you store the milk; otherwise, the milk could spoil.
- If you are freezing the milk, be sure not to fill any container to the very top because the milk will expand when frozen and could breach the seal.
- Make sure that your breast pump and attachments are thoroughly sterilized between uses, or you could be introducing bacteria into the containers of expressed milk.
TIP: in the early days, when baby is only drinking a couple of ounces at a time, get and sterilize some ice cube trays for your milk. This way, you can pop out and thaw just enough for baby to drink, rather than thawing an entire bag or container, with some of it going to waste. You can put thawed breast milk in the refrigerator for up to 24 hours, but anything left after that should be thrown away.
Identifying if breast milk has spoiled
This can be difficult because breast milk does not smell, look or taste like regular milk. It’s scent, color and / or flavor can be altered by something you ate, medications, or the freeze / thaw process.
Breast milk can also be a range of colors naturally, and that can change over time or even in the course or one pumping session! Yellow, off white, hints of blue or orange can also be seen in some. None of these are an obvious clue as to whether your milk has spoiled.
Just remember that your milk can be different on different days and it doesn’t mean it’s off. If you’ve done everything correctly in terms of handling and storing the expressed milk, it should be fine.
How to thaw frozen breast milk
To thaw it, just place it in the fridge overnight, or run warm water over the container. NEVER microwave or stove heat frozen breast milk as it will warm unevenly, which can cause a burn, and the process of fast heating will eliminate some of the all important antibodies that the milk contains. You should also never leave it on the counter to thaw at room temperature.
Whether you’re going to feed baby refrigerated milk, or some that was in the freezer and thawed, make sure you a gentle shake to the container before putting it in a bottle. During the time it was stored, the fat will have separated. Just like regular milk, the cream rises to the top!
You can combine two containers as long as they are at the same temperature. In other words, don’t add freshly pumped milk to a bottle that is in the refrigerator.
This seems like a lot to consider, but the upside to feeding your child breast milk is tremendous, from a health and wellbeing point of view. Take your time, learn what works for you and, above all, don’t stress about it. Having a point of reference, like a postpartum doula, around can help you sort out these questions and get on the right path to pumping and storing your milk for baby’s benefit, and yours.