by Jessica Martin-Weber
This post made possible by the generous partnership with Evenflo Feeding, every baby’s advocate and every parent’s ally.
Whatever your reasons for expressing your milk, having your milk wasted in any way is like a punch in the gut. Whether it is spilled, left out, too much served and the extra thrown out, or it has spoiled, seeing breastmilk go to waste is enough to bring even the toughest Leaky mom to tears. While accidents happen there are ways to prevent such a tragedy with safe handling and proper storage practices. We’re here to help with that.
It is bound to happen, for sure. Slippery bottles, floppy bags, too full containers, whatever it may be, if you express your milk long enough your going to have your fair share of spills and mishaps. I’d love to be able to wave a magic wand so no mom has to experience the agony of seeing her milk spilled on the counter but since we can’t do that, we’ll give you some tips and guidelines for avoiding other unnecessary causes to pouring liquid gold down the drain.
Below, find protocols and guidelines for breastmilk and tips for practical application plus some lessons learned the hard way. (Information gathered from the CDC; Human Milk Bank Association of North America; Office on Women’s Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; and the Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine Clinical Protocol #8 Human Milk Storage Information for Home Use for Full-Term Infants.)
Breastmilk Expression and Storage Safe Handling
- To prevent contamination, wash hands with soap and water before expressing or handling breastmilk. Unless you are aware that your breast has come into contact with some contaminates, it is not necessary to clean your breast prior to pumping as breasts are self-cleaning.
- Collect and store milk in clean containers such as bottles with screw caps, double zip-style bags designed specifically for breastmilk (like these), or trays with a sealing lid. Bags not designed for breastmilk storage may easily spill or potentially contaminate the breastmilk.
- Label all stored milk with the date, if sending to child care provider, include your child’s name to prevent mix-up.
- Cool freshly expressed milk prior to adding to previously refrigerated expressed milk to prevent rewarming and potential bacteria growth.
- Do not add milk to already frozen milk within a storage container.
- Store milk in small amounts to prevent waste.
- Leave room for milk to expand when freezing.
- Breastmilk is safe to be frozen best if frozen fresh, optimally after up to 3 days in refrigerator, 12 hours in cooler bag with freezer pack, ok after 5 days in the refrigerator or 24 hours in cooler bag with freezer pack; smell milk to ensure freshness before freezing.
- Store milk in the back of the freezer where temperatures are more consistent.
- Milk that is partially defrosted but still has ice crystals can be refrozen.
Breastmilk Safe Temperature Storage Guidelines
- Room temperature*: 3-4 hours optimal, 6-8 hours acceptable if very clean *(60-77° F [some say up to 85° F], 16-25° C [some say up to 29° C])
- Cooler bag*: 8 hours optimal, 24 hours acceptable if very clean (please note, some studies show that a freezer pack keeps an insulated cooler at food safe temperatures for no more than 2 hours) *(up to 39° F, 4° C.)
- Refrigerator*: 72 hours optimal, 5- 8 days acceptable if very clean *(up to 39° F, 4° C.)
- Freezer within refrigerator*: 2 weeks maximum. *(up to 5° F, -15° C.)
- Freezer attached to refrigerator*: 3-6 months optimal, 12 months acceptable. *(up to 0°F, -18°C.)
- Deep freeze*: 12 months. *(up to -4°F, -20°C.)
Tip: If you’re not sure your milk is still good, you can always smell and taste your milk for freshness. Spoiled milk has a very distinct odor and taste. Most of the guidelines are to minimize the degradation of milk. It is possible your milk may vary slightly from these guidelines or that your milk will have not spoiled but the composition may have begun breaking down. The simplest way to prevent feeding your baby spoiled milk is simply to smell and/or taste it.
Breastmilk Defrosting and Feeding Safe Handling
- Defrost only amount needed
- Fresh is best, use oldest milk in the freezer or refrigerator first to not let milk go to waste.
- Safely defrost frozen milk in the refrigerator, running under warm water, or setting in a bowl of warm water. Do not microwave as this damages milk and creates dangerous hot spots due to heating inconsistencies.
- Gently swirl or shake defrosted milk with the lowest amount of force possible to mix fat that likely separated (please note, shaking milk has been discouraged to prevent breaking down the protein molecules, however, this has been debunked, here.)
- Do not save milk from a used bottle to use at another feeding more than 1-2 hours later, doing so risks the growth of bacteria from pathogens introduced by the baby during the feeding and the milk composition may be altered.
- Milk that has been defrosted has a lessened ability to inhibit bacteria growth, milk that has been thawed for over 24 hours should not be left out at room temperature for more than a couple of hours.
- Optimally, defrosted milk should be used within 24 hours of thawing, this may change based on when the milk was initially frozen after expression.
Additional Tips For Breastmilk Storage and Handling
My friend Amy Peterson, IBCLC and coauthor of Balancing Breast and Bottle, shared this golden nugget of a breastmilk storage tip with me. Before you start building your freezer stash, express some and put it in the fridge. After 24 hours, smell it. Then with freezing. Storage effects the smell of the milk if there are lipase or mineral oxidation issues. Before stockpiling, perform smell tests after refrigeration, and after freezing/defrosting. There are options for milk storage if there is high lipase or mineral oxidation issues but you need to know them before freezing to avoid having to toss a freezer full of milk due to such problems. *Note: high lipase or mineral oxidation is different than spoiled. Spoiled has a very sour odor and taste, high lipase is usually described as soapy tasting, and mineral oxidation as metallic or astringent.
How much you need in the freezer depends on your needs and why you’re freezing your milk. Your “freezer stash” doesn’t need to be huge, having just what you need at least lowers the risk of crying over milk defrosted due to the freezer becoming unplugged, power outage, or just a tragic freezer death. See this article to determine what you need in your freezer stash and why.
Get comfortable and familiar with your pump before baby comes if you can and check out these tips for maximizing breastmilk production with pumping.
Take your time when handling breastmilk. That can be challenging to do with a hungry or demanding baby but most mistakes that lead to spills are caused because we’re hurrying. Slow down, this free-flowing precious commodity takes handling with care. Don’t lose a single drop.
What are your tips for safe handling and maximizing your breastmilk expression?