Your milk is a living thing! It is rich in antibodies that are constantly killing off nasty bacteria. For that reason, it is very stable and remains nutritious and safe even after it’s been expressed. Breast milk storage guidelines are very different than formula, or even than pasteurized cow’s milk that you commonly buy at the grocery store.
You may find a wide spectrum of guidelines written about the safety of pumped breast milk at various temperatures. It can be confusing to try to figure out which source is correct. Why is there so much variability? The simple answer is that research is conducted in controlled situations for different populations. Conditions for breast milk storage in your home are very different than in a lab. For example, pumped breast milk will last longer in a refrigerator that is never opened. A hospital environment with fragile, premature babies requires that pumped breast milk be handled much more carefully than a home environment with a healthy baby.
What follows is a middle-of-the-road approach that considers the research as well as the less than perfect conditions that are found in our homes. The guidelines below assume that your baby is full term and healthy.
- Fresh (not frozen) pumped breast milk at room temperature: 4 hours or until the next feeding. (No need to warm it up!)
- Pumped breast milk in the refrigerator (not previously frozen) : 5 days
- Pumped breast milk in freezer: 3 months
- Pumped breast milk in deep freeze: 6 months (possibly longer if freezer rarely opened)
Whenever possible use fresh, room temperature or refrigerated pumped breast milk. Just as a freshly picked apple is more nutritious than an apple that’s been in cold storage for 3 months; your milk is most nutritious immediately after it’s been expressed. In addition, freezing destroys some of the live cells in your milk. So, if possible, store your precious milk in the fridge, leaving the frozen stash for emergencies.
If you plan to freeze your pumped breast milk, make sure you use storage containers that are appropriate for a freezer. Fill the containers leaving at least ½ inch of head space to make room for expansion. Glass containers, BPA -free plastic rigid containers and plastic storage bags are all acceptable. Be sure the bags are freezer safe, however. No one wants to find a burst bag of precious pumped breast milk in the freezer!
If you are having a hard time figuring out a system for storing your milk for your return to work, be sure to ask for help. Renee is available for return -to -work phone consultations—perfect for helping you figure out the details of breast milk storage and establishing a routine that works for you and your baby.
The milk that we buy at the grocery store has been pasteurized and homogenized. The pasteurization process kills all the bacteria and live cells in the milk—making it safe for us to drink, but also less stable. Homogenizing the milk permanently blends in the fat so that it doesn’t separate and float to the top. Most of us don’t have experience using fresh milk straight from the source—whether it be cow, goat or human! Freshly pumped milk from any mammal—including humans—looks very different from the milk we buy at the store.
After your milk has been expressed and it has been sitting on the counter or in the refrigerator for a while, the fat will begin to separate. You may notice a thin layer of cream on top of milk that looks quite watery. Some mothers even describe their pumped breast milk as “blue” or looking like skim milk. That is perfectly normal. Your milk has not gone “bad.” It’s normal for the cream to separate and rise to the surface.
Since fat content varies by the time of day, the fat layer in your pumped breast milk may range from just barely visible to a half-inch or more. Milk fat content also varies widely among mothers, so expect to see a difference among your friends. Any amount of fat you see in the pumped breast milk is perfect! There is no need for concern that your milk isn’t “good enough” for your baby.
Now you know some basic breast milk storage guidelines and you know about the normal appearance of pumped breast milk. The next step to learn how to prepare your milk for your baby.
- First of all make sure you have a reliable, professional grade pump that is comfortable for you to use. Your lactation consultant can help make sure the flanges fit properly so you will have a pleasant experience. To get the most value for your money, consider a Hygeia breast pump—a unique pump that is designed for multiple users.
- Many mothers find that they are more likely to pump if they can have their hands free while doing so. Check out this fun and functional hands free pumping support. PumpEase comes in some really fun colors and fabrics. If you enjoy your pumping time, you are more likely to continue to make lots of milk for your baby.
- Before you give your pumped breast milk to your baby, swirl the milk gently in order to mix in the cream.
- If it’s been refrigerated, you can gently warm it to room temperature in a bowl of hot water. Or, if your baby can wait, you can simply remove the bottle of pumped breast milk from the refrigerator and let it gradually warm to room temperature. (You may not even need to warm it-many babies are just as happy with cold milk.)
- Pumped breast milk that has been frozen can be thawed slowly in the refrigerator or you can thaw it in a container of hot water. Keep in mind that extreme temperatures tend to destroy more nutrients, so be gentle with thawing. Think ahead when you can, so the pumped breast milk will be ready for the baby when the baby is hungry.
- Never use a microwave to thaw or warm your precious pumped breast milk. Important nutrients will be destroyed if the milk gets too hot. In addition, using a microwave may create “hot spots” as the milk warms unevenly. These hot spots can potentially cause burning in your baby’s mouth.
- Most sources advise against mixing pumped breast milk with formula.