If you’re a breastfeeding mom, you’ve very aware of how valuable your milk is! Pumping is a hassle, and you want to take advantage of all the milk you’ve worked to produce. So you might be wondering how long breast milk can safely stay out. Here’s the short answer:
Both refrigerated and freshly expressed breast milk can be safely kept out at room temperature for 4 hours.
Some sources say that breast milk can be kept out a bit longer, up to six hours. But if you want to be conservative here four hours is a generally accepted timeframe.
Things can get a bit more complicated, however, depending on a variety of factors. So let’s take a closer look at what’s safe when it comes to using expressed milk.
Things You Should Know When It Comes to Pumped Breast Milk
As much as you don’t want to waste any milk, you also want to make sure that your baby doesn’t drink milk that’s gone bad. So once you start pumping, it’s critical to understand how to handle storage safely.
There are many factors that go into determining how to handle that freshly pumped bottle. It’s definitely not a straight-forward answer, but we will break it down here.
Storage Guidelines for Breast Milk
These guidelines pertain to healthy full-term infants, and are the parameters you should follow for keeping breast milk out at room temperature (assuming the temperature is not over 77 degrees Farenheit):
- Refrigerated breast milk can be kept out at room temperature for up to 4 hours.
- Freshly expressed or pumped breast milk can be kept at room temperature for around 4 hours. At that point it should be used or stored properly.
- Milk leftover from a feeding (i.e. baby didn’t finish bottle) should be used within 2 hours after the baby is finished feeding.
- Freshly pumped breast milk can be stored in a breastmilk cooler bag with ice packs for up to a day.
- Frozen breast milk that’s been thawed in the refrigerator and not yet warmed can be kept at room temperature for up to 4 hours.
- Breast milk can be frozen for up to a year. However, using the milk within 3-6 months is preferable for best quality.
- Never refreeze breast milk once it has been thawed.
Bacteria and Breast Milk
Assuming that you use safe storage practices, small amounts of bacteria (such as the bacteria that is on your hands, skin, and even pump) will not harm a healthy, full-term child.
Breast milk contains antibacterial properties that keep the growth of bacteria at bay for many hours. Still, you can’t just leave it out indefinitely – the longer you leave your milk out, the more chance the bacteria has to grow and multiply. This is why it’s essential that you follow the safe storage guidelines outlined above.
There are certain variables that impact the growth rate of bacteria. Room temperature in particular is important here. The warmer the room, the quicker it will be for bacteria to grow.
You may come across some sources that indicate that it’s safe to use breast milk even if it’s been left out for as long as 10-12 hours, because of its antibacterial properties. I would strongly advise caution here! The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) uses a 4-hour cutoff, and when it comes to feeding your baby safely, staying on the side of caution is important.
How to store pumped breast milk:
- Pumped breast milk should be stored in milk storage bags or food-grade containers with air-tight lids. Containers should be made of glass or plastic and should be BPA-free. (If you see the recycle symbol #7 you should skip it – this indicates that it may contain BPA).
- Only use storage bags or containers that are intended for nursing mothers – never use regular plastic bags.
- Label your container with the date the milk was expressed.
- Avoid the refrigerator or freezer door for storing your bottles. The opening and closing of the door can impact the milk with the temperature fluctuations.
- Freeze breast milk in small amounts of about 2 to 4 ounces to avoid waste.
- Make sure to leave some open space at the top of the container – the breast milk will expand as it freezes.
- If you’re not planning to use it within 4 days of pumping, freeze the milk immediately in order to protect its quality.
How to thaw breast milk safely
There are a few different options when it comes to thawing your frozen breastmilk:
- Thaw the milk in the refrigerator overnight.
- Use a container of warm water to thaw your milk.
- Hold your milk under a stream of lukewarm running water in order to thaw it.
- Do NOT thaw or heat up breast milk in the microwave. This poses a risk of burning your baby’s mouth, and it also destroys nutrients in the milk.
If you follow the safety guidelines above, you should be in a great position to keep your baby healthy and well fed.
Even if your initial question was simply “how long can breast milk stay out?”, I hope you learned some other important information about safe storage and thawing practices as well!
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