You’ve probably already heard that breastmilk is the perfect food for your baby. In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends feeding your baby only breastmilk for the first six months and then continuing to breastfeed as food is introduced for a year or longer.

And if you’re following that plan, whether in part or to the letter, you know that sometimes you’ll need to be away from your baby at feeding time. When that happens, experts say giving stored breastmilk is the best alternative. But making sure that stored breastmilk is safe means following some established guidelines.

Here are your questions and our answers based on current information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

What Should I Do First?

Before you express or pump your milk, wash your hands well with soap and water. If there’s no soap and water, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer. It should contain at least 60 percent alcohol. If you’re using a pump, check to make sure the pump kit and tubing are clean. Germs can grow on the pump parts from breastmilk residue. See “How to Keep Your Breast Pump Kit Clean” available from the CDC.

Which Container Should I Use?

The CDC recommends using either breastmilk storage bags or clean food-grade containers with tight-fitting lids. Containers can be made of glass or plastic. If you use plastic containers, make sure the plastic doesn’t contain BPA by looking for the recycle symbol with the number 7. If you use bags, buy the ones made specifically for storing breastmilk; don’t use disposable bottle liners or other kinds of plastic bags.

Once the breastmilk is in the container, label it with the baby’s name, date pumped and other storage information (such as the date and time it was thawed) that might be needed for a caregiver.

How Long Can Breastmilk Sit Out?

You can leave freshly expressed or pumped breastmilk out at room temperature (not higher than 77° F) for up to four hours. However, you may want to go ahead and refrigerate or freeze it, depending on when you plan to use it.

How Long Can Breastmilk Be Refrigerated?

Breastmilk can be refrigerated (40° F) for up to four days. Place it in one of the coldest spots, such as in the back on a bottom shelf. Don’t store breastmilk in the door of the refrigerator, where temperatures fluctuate with opening and closing of the door. If you need to store it longer than four days, freeze it right after expressing or pumping to protect the quality.

How Long Can Breastmilk Be Frozen?

Breastmilk can be stored in the freezer (0° F) for about six months (best) or up to 12 months (acceptable). Place the milk in the back of the freezer and away from the door to avoid fluctuations in temperature. Also, keep it away from the walls of self-defrosting freezers. Freeze in small portions (the amount your baby takes in one feeding) to help avoid waste. Don’t fill the containers all the way to the top; frozen liquids expand, so leave about an inch.

Once you thaw a container of breastmilk, it will keep at room temperature for one to two hours or in the refrigerator for up to 24 hours. Never refreeze breastmilk after it has been thawed.

What’s the Best Way to Thaw Frozen Breastmilk?

You may thaw it in the refrigerator, set it in a container of warm water or hold it under warm (not hot) running water. Keep these precautions in mind when thawing:

  • Never thaw breastmilk by leaving it on the countertop.
  • Don’t thaw breastmilk in the microwave. Heating in the microwave can destroy nutrients and create hot spots, which can burn a baby’s mouth.
  • Don’t place breastmilk directly on the stove to thaw.

How Do I Prepare Thawed Breastmilk for Feeding?

You don’t have to warm breastmilk before feeding your baby. You can give it at room temperature or cold. If you want to warm the breastmilk, put it in a container of warm water or hold it under warm (not hot) running water. As mentioned above, don’t warm breastmilk in the microwave or directly on the stove.

Sometimes the fat will separate, so gently swirl the breastmilk to mix. Test that the temperature is not too hot by putting a few drops on your wrist. If the baby doesn’t finish the bottle, you may use the remainder within two hours. After two hours, discard what’s left.

TIP: The WIC breastfeeding website offers this printable chart for breastmilk storage guidelines.

Brenda Schoolfield is a freelance medical writer who splits her time between Austin and Seattle.

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