Guidelines for storing, freezing and thawing human milk
There is no disputing that ‘breast is best’, but for some of us (the author included), breast feeding is not always possible. By expressing (pumping), a mother ensures that her baby receives all of the benefits of breastmilk, even if she is unable to breast feed, is away from her baby or perhaps has returned to full-time work.
There is conflicting (but well-researched) advice available regarding the storage of mother’s expressed breastmilk. In light of this, we have adopted what we consider to be the safest and easiest guidelines for a mum to follow.
Breast milk can either be stored in purpose-made bottles or bags. If freezing the milk is intended, we recommend the Axifeed range of bottles a robust, convenient and economical breastmilk container. In addition, we stock Lansinoh and Medela breastmilk storage bottles. Ensure that you date and label the bottles after use. Also, do not fill past the top scale of the bottle in order to allow for expansion of the milk.
The following information is available for download in .pdf format here (76Kb).
Storing, Freezing and Thawing Expressed Breastmilk
Human milk can be stored in 3 ways.
Whichever method you use, ensure that you label the container with date and time of expression and always use the oldest milk first.
Storage at room temperature (68°F, 20°C max)
Freshly expressed breastmilk can be kept at room temperature for a maximum of 6 hours (The Breast Feeding Network).
Breast milk that has been heated to body temperature (98°F, 37°C) must be used within an hour.
Storage in a refrigerator
Breast milk can be stored in a fridge with a temperature of between +2-4°C for up to 5 days (Unicef).
Breast milk can be stored in a fridge with a temperature of between +5-10°C for up to 3 days. (Breast Feeding Network).
Use a fridge thermometer to check the temperature of your fridge regularly.
Your milk should not be stored in the door of a fridge as the temperature of the expressed breastmilk will fluctuate as the fridge door is opened.
The best place is in a covered drawer in the fridge. You can then ensure that the drawer is only opened when you need to remove or store more breastmilk. Where there is no drawer available, store in the lowest part of the fridge towards the back.
Storage in a freezer/deep freeze
These guidelines DO NOT refer to the small freezer compartment within a standard refrigerator.
If you intend to freeze unused breastmilk, freezing should take place within 24 hours of expressing.
The Breast Feeding Network (BFN) advocates that breastmilk can be stored for up to six months in a freezer that has a constant temperature of -18°C or lower. However, Unicef’s "Breastfeeding Your Baby" document advises that breastmilk can be kept in a freezer for just 3 months.
It is important to remember that in order to meet your baby's nutritional needs, your breastmilk composition changes naturally in line with your baby’s growth. Considering this, I therefore recommend that frozen breastmilk should ideally be used within 3 months of expression.
The safest way to defrost is to transfer the breastmilk container to a refrigerator and allow the milk to thaw overnight. If the container remains in the fridge, the milk should be used within 24 hours of thawing (LaLeche).
Frozen breastmilk which has been defrosted outside of the fridge but then placed back in the fridge once in a liquid state should be used within 4 hours (LaLeche).
If defrosted breastmilk is allowed to warm to 'room-temperature' (68°F), it needs to be used immediately (BFN).
Do not use a microwave to defrost breastmilk. Breast milk must never be re-frozen.
Warming the milk
The safest way to warm up your breastmilk is to place the storage bag or bottle into a bowl of warm water, first ensuring that the bag or bottle is properly sealed.
Never use a microwave oven, since microwaving can cause uneven temperatures, including 'hot spots'. In addition, I am unable to find conclusive research on the negative/positive effects of microwaving human breastmilk at this time.
As an associate of a United Kingdom based company, and following local practices, I strongly recommend that breastmilk collection and storage media are sterilised prior to use.
However, opinions vary, and in some regions, washing equipment with warm water and detergent is considered perfectly acceptable. If in any doubt, consult your preferred Healthcare Professional.
Secondhand equipment MUST be thoroughly sterilised prior to use.
The Breastfeeding Network (BFN) - 'Expressing and Storing Breastmilk' - Sept 2006 www.breastfeedingnetwork.org.uk
Unicef & UK Baby Friendly Initiative - 'Breastfeeding Your Baby'
LaLeche League Great Britain - 'Storing Human Milk' 1998 Cat. 0724
This guide ©Janette Cassidy BSc (Hons), RGN, DN, HV, Specialist Practitioner (Public Health), all rights reserved.
Last updated December 2008 (E & OE).