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Here's a handy guide to storing and rewarming pumped breast milk safely before feeding it to your baby.
What can I do to help breast milk stay fresh longer?
Bacteria will eventually spoil breast milk, but there are ways to slow down this process:
- Limit the amount of bacteria that gets into the milk by maintaining very clean conditions: Always wash your hands, pump parts, and bottles before pumping and storing your milk. (You can use disposable collection bags instead of bottles.) Follow the cleaning instructions that come with your pump.
- If you're not using it right away, put breast milk in a refrigerator or freezer. Cold inhibits bacteria's growth. Keep milk in the back of the fridge or freezer, where the temperature stays more constant.
- If you're using a cooler, make sure it's clean. Then place the containers of breast milk in direct contact with the ice packs. (You can buy a cooler with a contoured ice pack designed for this purpose). Transfer the bottles to a fridge or freezer as soon as possible within 24 hours.
How long does breast milk stay fresh?
See the guidelines below to find out how long breast milk stays fresh under different conditions. Keep in mind that these guidelines are intended for healthy, full-term babies. If your baby is preterm or hospitalized, ask your baby's doctor for recommendations on storing breast milk.
Always label your pumped milk with a time and date so you can tell how old it is. Toss milk that's unused by the maximum period of time, and dump any that smells like sour cow's milk, even if it's not expired.
Also, breast milk starts to lose nutritional benefits over time, so that's another reason not to store the milk too long before feeding it to your baby.
Freshly pumped breast milk: How long does it keep?
- At room temperature (up to 77 degrees Fahrenheit): 4 hours is optimal (6 to 8 hours if pumped under very clean conditions)
- In a cooler with ice packs surrounding the milk container: 24 hours
- In the fridge (39 degrees F): 5 days (up to 8 days if pumped under very clean conditions)
Refrigerate or freeze breast milk as soon as possible after pumping. After it's been left out or in the fridge for the maximum amount of time, you must use it, freeze it, or dump it.
If you want to add freshly pumped milk to a container of milk that's already in the fridge, chill the newly pumped milk first before pouring it in. Leave the container labeled with the date of the older milk.
Frozen breast milk: How long does it keep?
- In a freezer compartment inside a fridge: 2 weeks
- In a regular freezer: 3 to 6 months
- In a deep freezer: 6 to 12 months
Thawed, previously frozen breast milk: How long does it keep?
- At room temperature: 2 hours (up to 4 hours if pumped under very clean conditions)
- In a cooler with ice packs surrounding the container: 24 hours
- In the fridge: 24 hours
Note: Don't refreeze thawed breast milk.
Thawing frozen breast milk
To thaw frozen breast milk, hold the milk container under warm running water, or put it in a bowl of warm water. You can also thaw it by putting it in the fridge for about 12 hours. (Thawed milk only keeps in the fridge for about 24 hours, so don't leave it in there longer than that.)
Caution: Don't thaw breast milk by leaving it out at room temperature because that can allow harmful bacteria to grow. And never use a microwave to thaw frozen breast milk because it can create hot spots, which can burn your baby's mouth. It also destroys some of the milk's nutritional benefits.
Warming cold breast milk
Babies don't need to have warmed milk, but they may prefer it. To warm chilled milk, hold the milk container under warm running water, or put it in a bowl of warm water for a few minutes. If the milk has separated into layers, gently swirl (don't shake) to recombine.
Caution: Never use a microwave to heat up breast milk because this can create hot spots, which can burn your baby's mouth. It also destroys some of the milk's nutritional benefits.
If my baby doesn't finish a bottle of breast milk, can I save it for later?
During a feeding, bacteria enter the bottle from your baby's mouth and will eventually spoil the milk. The problem is, there's no way to tell exactly how fast that happens.
Based on the available evidence, once your baby starts drinking breast milk from a bottle, he has up to two hours to finish it. If he doesn't, throw it out.
If your baby often leaves bottles unfinished, prepare smaller quantities. It can be upsetting to throw breast milk away!
Breast milk storage tips
- Store breast milk in bottles made of glass or hard plastic with tight-fitting lids. Or use plastic bags made for storing breast milk. They're not as durable, but you can double bag for extra protection. Don't store milk in disposable bottle liners.
- If you're freezing milk, leave room at the top of the bottle or bag to allow for expansion.
- Store milk in small amounts, such as 2 to 4 ounces, or as much as your baby usually drinks in one sitting.
- Before stockpiling frozen milk, make sure your baby is willing to drink thawed milk. Sometimes thawed milk smells or tastes soapy when the enzyme lipase starts to break down the milk fats. The milk is still safe, and most babies will drink it. But if yours won't, you can deactivate the lipase by scalding – not boiling – your freshly pumped milk then cooling it in the fridge before freezing it. (Scalding means heating the milk until you can see tiny bubbles around the edge on the pan.)