Embarking on your journey of breastfeeding comes with its own set of guidelines, especially when it comes to storing and handling that liquid gold - breast milk. It can all be so confusing and feel daunting in the beginning, but once you have the information, you will get the hang of it! We've got your back with a go-to guide on proper breast milk storage, freezing and thawing tips, and the best practices for ensuring the safety of your precious milk.
(Note, we are about to talk about some great benefits of breastfeeding. If that is not the right choice for you and your family, we support you. A fed baby and a happy family is the goal of any feeding journey.)
The Importance of Breast Milk Safety
Breast milk is not only a precious source of nourishment for infants but a complex biological fluid with unparalleled benefits. And let’s face it, pumping takes dedication! You have to take time out of a busy day, pump in often uncomfortable locations and carry a burdensome number of supplies around to do it. After all that work, you don’t want that milk you worked so hard for to be undrinkable or cause tummy issues for your baby. Before we talk about all the rules, a few little reminders to get pumped for your pumping journey!
Why is breastmilk so beneficial?
- Nutritional Goldmine: Breast milk is a dynamic concoction of essential nutrients, antibodies, and enzymes tailored to meet the unique needs of a growing baby. It provides a perfect blend of proteins, fats, vitamins, and minerals, promoting optimal growth and development during the crucial early months of life.
- Immune System Boost: One of the most remarkable aspects of breast milk is its ability to bolster the infant's immune system. Loaded with antibodies, white blood cells, and other immune-boosting factors, breast milk acts as a natural shield against infections, allergies, and various illnesses. It serves as the first line of defense, imparting crucial protection during the vulnerable stages of infancy.
- Digestive Health and Beyond: Beyond its nutritional content, breast milk plays a pivotal role in supporting the development of a healthy digestive system. It contains probiotics and prebiotics that contribute to the establishment of a robust gut microbiome, fostering proper digestion and absorption of nutrients. This, in turn, influences overall health and may have long-term implications for the child's well-being.
- Cognitive and Developmental Advantages: Research indicates that breastfed babies may experience cognitive and developmental advantages. The unique composition of breast milk, including essential fatty acids like DHA, is believed to contribute to optimal brain development, potentially influencing intelligence and cognitive abilities later in life.
- Emotional Bonding: Breastfeeding is not just a nutritional exchange but a profound bonding experience between a mother and her baby. The physical closeness, eye contact, and skin-to-skin contact during breastfeeding contribute to emotional bonding, fostering a sense of security and trust between the mother and child.
- Adaptability and Customization: Remarkably, breast milk adapts to the changing needs of the growing baby. Its composition varies based on factors such as the baby's age, time of day, and even specific health conditions. This adaptability ensures that the infant receives the right balance of nutrients at different stages of development.
- Reducing Health Disparities: Breastfeeding has the potential to contribute to reducing health disparities by offering an equal start to all infants, irrespective of socio-economic backgrounds. Breast milk provides a foundation for good health, potentially mitigating the impact of certain health inequalities that may arise later in life.
- Environmental Impact: Breastfeeding is a sustainable and eco-friendly practice. Unlike formula feeding, it generates no waste from packaging and production, contributing to a lower environmental impact. Opting for breastfeeding aligns with a more environmentally conscious and sustainable approach to infant feeding.
The commitment to breast milk safety is a shared responsibility, requiring attention to proper storage, hygiene, and overall health practices. By prioritizing breast milk safety, caregivers contribute to the health and resilience of their infants, setting the stage for a thriving future. Drinking old breast milk, which has surpassed its recommended storage duration, may lead to potential risks. Here are some considerations:
- Nutrient Degradation: Over time, the nutrient content of breast milk can degrade. Vitamins, fats, and other essential components may undergo changes, potentially impacting the nutritional value the baby receives.
- Bacterial Growth: Breast milk is a natural food source, and like any perishable item, it can be susceptible to bacterial growth. If breast milk is stored improperly or for too long, bacteria may multiply, leading to contamination.
- Loss of Immunological Factors: One of the key benefits of breast milk is its immune-boosting properties. Over time, however, the concentration of antibodies and other immune factors may diminish, potentially reducing the milk's effectiveness in providing protection against infections.
- Unpleasant Taste or Smell: Old breast milk may develop an unpleasant taste or odor. While this might not pose a health risk, it can lead to the baby refusing to feed, making it challenging for the mother to maintain breastfeeding.
- Digestive Discomfort: In some cases, babies may experience digestive discomfort or upset stomach if they consume old breast milk. This can be attributed to changes in the milk's composition or potential bacterial contamination.
- Decreased Acceptance: Babies can be sensitive to changes in the taste and smell of breast milk. Offering outdated milk may result in the baby rejecting the breast or expressing dissatisfaction during feeding.
To mitigate these risks and ensure the safety of breast milk, follow proper storage guidelines. Guidelines typically recommend refrigerating fresh breast milk for a few days and freezing for longer storage, with specific timeframes for optimal quality.
Here is our complete list for breast milk storage safety!
The Foundation of Breast Milk Safety
Think about going BPA-free. Bisphenol A (BPA) is a chemical commonly found in many plastics, including those used for food and beverage containers. Research has raised concerns about the potential health risks associated with BPA exposure, especially for infants and young children and may hinder some of the immunity-boosting properties for breastmilk. Many breast milk storage containers are already BPA-free, but if this is important to you, double check!
- Choose the Right Storage Containers for You and Baby: Think about going BPA-free. Bisphenol A (BPA) is a chemical commonly found in many plastics, including those used for food and beverage containers. Research has raised concerns about the potential health risks associated with BPA exposure, especially for infants and young children and may hinder some of the immunity-boosting properties for breastmilk. Many breast milk storage containers are already BPA-free, but if this is important to you, double check!
- Date Every Container: Breast milk is a living fluid that changes in composition over time to meet the evolving nutritional needs of the baby. Its freshness directly impacts the quality and effectiveness of its nutrients. Dating containers allows you to track the age of expressed milk. Using older milk first ensures that the baby receives the most recently expressed milk, optimizing the retention of essential nutrients. Dating containers facilitates a "first in, first out" approach. By using older milk before fresher batches, you can ensure that none of the expressed milk goes to waste, promoting efficient resource utilization.
Finally, in situations where caregivers, such as family members or childcare providers, are involved in feeding the baby, clear dating provides essential information for them to make informed decisions. It takes some of the stress off you and shares that info with others sharing the caregiving load.
- Temperature Matters: Breast milk can be stored for different durations based on whether it's kept at room temperature, in the refrigerator, or in the freezer. Each storage method has specific guidelines to maintain safety and quality. Dating containers helps mothers adhere to recommended storage durations, preventing the consumption of milk that may have exceeded its safe storage period and potentially spoiled.
- Avoid the Door: If possible, have a dedicated storage area in your freezer that is not in the door. The temperature inside the refrigerator door tends to fluctuate more than the temperature inside the main body of the refrigerator. This fluctuation occurs each time the door is opened and closed. Temperature fluctuations, especially in the warmer areas near the door, can affect the longevity and safety of breast milk. Placing breast milk away from the door reduces its exposure to warmer air, minimizing the risk of temperature variations. This is particularly crucial for maintaining the safety of the milk, as breast milk is vulnerable to bacterial growth in warmer conditions. Temperature abuse occurs when the temperature of stored items fluctuates, leading to potential bacterial growth. Consistent temperatures, achievable by storing breast milk away from the door, help prevent temperature abuse. This minimizes the risk of bacterial contamination, ensuring the milk remains safe for the baby's consumption.
Freezing and Thawing Tips
- Freezer-Friendly Bags: Specialized breast milk storage bags offer practical and hygienic solutions for breastfeeding mothers, facilitating efficient storage, easy management, and safe transportation of expressed breast milk. Choosing bags designed specifically for this purpose contributes to a seamless and convenient breastfeeding experience. Breast milk storage bags are typically designed to be space-efficient and stackable, optimizing storage in the refrigerator or freezer. This design allows you to store a significant quantity of breast milk without taking up excessive space, making organization and management more convenient. Storage bags are generally flat and can be laid flat for freezing. They thaw more quickly and evenly compared to bottles. Quick and even thawing ensures that the breast milk is ready for feeding when needed, providing convenience for caregivers.
- Defrost with Care: Proper thawing methods preserve the nutritional content and ensure the safety of the milk. While the microwave may seem like a quick option, it is not recommended for thawing breast milk due to uneven heating and the risk of nutrient loss. Here are detailed steps for proper breast milk thawing without using the microwave:
Transfer from freezer to refrigerator: Move the frozen breast milk from the freezer to the refrigerator. Thawing in the refrigerator is a gradual process, typically taking around 12 to 24 hours, depending on the volume of milk.
Use a container or thawing bag: Place the frozen breast milk container or storage bag in a clean container to catch any potential leaks during thawing. Using a separate container helps contain any accidental spills and maintains hygiene.
Gentle swirling or agitation: Periodically swirl or gently agitate the breast milk container or storage bag. This helps distribute any temperature variations and ensures even thawing without compromising the milk's quality.
Check the temperature: Before using the breast milk, check its temperature by placing a few drops on the inside of your wrist. The temperature should be lukewarm, similar to body temperature, indicating that the milk is fully thawed and ready for use.
Avoid direct sunlight or warm water: Keep the breast milk away from direct sunlight and avoid thawing in warm or hot water. Exposure to excessive heat can lead to nutrient loss and compromise the quality of the breast milk. If in a pinch, placing the bag of milk in a bowl of water can help thaw milk at a faster rate if needed. For a quicker thawing process, some parents use bottle warmers specifically designed for breast milk. While convenient, ensure the bottle warmer is designed for breast milk to avoid overheating.
- Say No to Refreezing: Use refrigerated thawed milk within 24 hours and room temperature thawed milk in 1-2 hours. This ensures the freshness and safety of the milk, minimizing the risk of bacterial contamination.
Handling Breast Milk Safely
- Handle with Clean Hands: Maintaining clean hands and practicing good hygiene during milk expression is helpful for both mom and baby.
- Preventing bacterial contamination: The breast is not a sterile environment, and bacteria from the skin can easily transfer to the breast and then into the expressed milk. By thoroughly washing hands before expressing milk, you can reduce the risk of introducing bacteria, minimizing the potential for bacterial contamination in the breast milk.
- Safeguarding baby's health: Infants have developing immune systems that are more susceptible to infections. Practicing good hand hygiene ensures that your baby is exposed to clean and uncontaminated breast milk, reducing the risk of infections and promoting overall health.
- Preventing skin irritations: Residue from lotions, creams, or other substances on the hands can potentially transfer to the breast and, subsequently, breast milk. Ensuring hands are clean and free from potential irritants helps prevent skin-related issues for both you and the baby.
- Ensuring a positive feeding experience: Babies have a keen sense of smell and taste, and they can be sensitive to odors or flavors on the skin. You may have even noticed your armpits smell a little stronger since you’ve been nursing. This is actually your body putting out scent to tell your baby where to go for food. (…and maybe partly from showering less with those sleepless nights!)
- Avoid thawing at room temperature if that is an option: While thawing breast milk at room temperature is an option, it's important to be aware of the potential risks and take precautions to minimize them. Thawing breast milk at room temperature without a clear timeline for consumption increases the risk of spoilage. If using this method, it's advisable to monitor the thawing process closely, keep the time to a minimum, and prioritize safe handling and storage practices to ensure the health and safety of the baby. Infants with compromised immune systems or preterm babies may be more vulnerable to the risks associated with thawing breast milk at room temperature. High-risk infants are more susceptible to infections, making it crucial to minimize potential risks related to bacterial contamination.
- Store in small portions: You may be urged to fill your milk freezer bags to the top, but storing in smaller quantities will be easier to manage and save more of your precious liquid gold! Storing breast milk in small portions minimizes the risk of wasting large quantities. Since it is not advised to store or refreeze thawed milk, smaller portions allow you to thaw only the amount needed for each feeding, reducing the chances of leftover milk being discarded. Smaller portions freeze and thaw more quickly than larger volumes. Quick freezing helps preserve the nutritional content of breast milk, including essential vitamins, antibodies, and enzymes, promoting optimal benefits for the baby. Smaller portions thaw more evenly and quickly, reducing exposure to temperature fluctuations. Even thawing helps maintain the quality of the milk, minimizing the risk of bacterial growth and ensuring consistent taste and temperature for the baby.
- Sterilize regularly: Regular sterilization of pumping equipment is crucial for maintaining a hygienic and safe breastfeeding environment for both you and your baby. Regular sterilization of pumping equipment helps eliminate any potential bacteria that may come into contact with the breast milk during the expression process, reducing the risk of contamination. Newborns and infants have developing immune systems. Sterilizing pumping equipment ensures that the breast milk delivered to the baby is free from harmful bacteria, supporting the baby's health and well-being while also protecting your health. Inadequate hygiene can lead to infections, including mastitis, in breastfeeding mothers. Regular sterilization helps baby’s health, your health and maintain the integrity and longevity of pumping equipment, ensuring it functions effectively over time.
- Use a Breast Milk Cooler: As you probably know now after reading all of these tips, temperature control is important for your breast milk. When on the go, use a cooler bag to keep milk at safe temperatures so you can store it when you get home.
- Stay Hydrated: A nursing mother needs about 16 cups of water a day to compensate for the extra water that is used to make milk. One way to help you get the fluids you need is to drink a large glass of water each time you breastfeed your baby.
- Healthy Diet Matters: Your body will take what is needed for your breast milk. That is why it is so important to keep a healthy diet to supply both you and baby with the nutrition needed. You may want to talk to your doctor about continuing to take your prenatal vitamin too. There have also been studies that you eating allergens can help baby to not develop allergies. So, hello peanut butter!
- Pump Regularly: Your body gets in a routine and makes milk when it is needed. Creating a regular pump schedule helps ensure your body knows when you need to make milk. This will help you get the amount you need for baby while also ensuring you are able to extract milk when you are making it to avoid engorgement that can lead to uncomfortable issues like clogged ducts or breast infection. Engorgement can also slow your production because your body is not getting the message to make more milk.
- Consult with Experts: If you are ever in doubt or having a hard time with pumping or nursing, seek help form a doctor or lactation consultant. And if that lactation consultant doesn’t help, try another one! Most insurance companies will cover the cost for you to see a lactation consultant.
- Monitor Your Baby's Reaction: Pay attention to your baby's cues for adjustments in pumping and feeding routines. They may be little, but they are still communicating with you. Tune in to see if they are uncomfortable, having trouble latching, full, hungry or gassy!
- Give yourself grace: Nursing is a full-time job! When people calculate the amount of time spent on breastfeeding, it comes out to about 1,800 hours in a year. It takes dedication and time. So be gentle with yourself if you, at times, feel tired, spread thin, or like you can’t get your to-do list done. Chances are your to-do list is just too long! Be kind to yourself, ask for help, and seek professional help if needed. And know, that if nursing ends up not being for you, you did not fail, you simply decided to make the best decision for your family.
- Enjoy the Journey: We talked about a lot of tasks, but nursing is amazing! Breastfeeding goes beyond its physical health benefits; it also provides emotional and psychological advantages for both you and baby. Here are some of the emotional benefits of breastfeeding:
- Bonding and connection: Breastfeeding fosters a strong emotional bond between you and your baby. The close physical contact, eye contact, and the act of breastfeeding create a deep emotional connection, promoting a sense of security and attachment.
- Stress reduction: Breastfeeding triggers the release of oxytocin, often referred to as the "love hormone." Oxytocin helps reduce stress and promotes feelings of calmness and well-being
- Emotional satisfaction: Successfully breastfeeding can provide a sense of accomplishment and emotional satisfaction. Achieving breastfeeding goals can positively impact the your self-esteem and confidence in her ability to nurture and care for your baby.
- Enhanced maternal instincts: Breastfeeding supports the development of maternal instincts. The act of breastfeeding can help you feel more in tune with your baby's needs, enhancing your confidence in responding to and understanding your child.
- Natural calming effect: Breastfeeding provides a natural and calming activity. The act of breastfeeding can soothe both the baby and the mother, creating a tranquil environment and promoting emotional well-being.
- Enhanced emotional resilience: Overcoming breastfeeding challenges can build emotional resilience. Successfully navigating through difficulties in breastfeeding can be empowering, enhancing your emotional strength and adaptability.
- Sense of security: Breastfeeding promotes a sense of security and comfort for the baby. The close physical contact and your familiar scent provide a soothing and reassuring environment.
- Emotional regulation: Skin-to-skin contact and the act of breastfeeding help babies regulate their emotions, promoting a sense of security and well-being.
- Attachment and trust: Breastfeeding plays a key role in forming a secure attachment between the baby and the mother. A secure attachment fosters a foundation of trust and emotional security for the baby.
- Responsive interaction: Breastfeeding encourages responsive interactions between the mother and the baby. The close contact and responsiveness during breastfeeding contribute to the baby's social and emotional development.
- Comfort and contentment: Breastfeeding provides comfort and a sense of contentment for the baby. The act of breastfeeding satisfies not only the baby's nutritional needs but also their emotional need for closeness and comfort.
- Positive sleep associations: Breastfeeding is often associated with positive sleep routines. Establishing positive sleep associations through breastfeeding can contribute to the baby's emotional well-being and sense of security.