How Long Does Breast Milk Last?

The length of time breast milk can be stored depends whether it is kept at room temperature, in a fridge or frozen. This article shares recommended storage times at different temperatures, and answers frequently asked questions about collecting and using stored breast milk.

Breast milk storage

The Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine’s Clinical Protocol #8: Human Milk Storage Information for Home Use for Full-Term Infants is a reliable guide to storage times. Their information is summarised below:

How long does breast milk last at room temperature?

  • For temperatures 16-29°C (60-85 °F) the optimal storage time is 3–4 hours, but 6–8 hours may be acceptable for breast milk collected under very clean conditions at lower temperatures in the range.
  • For temperatures 27–32°C; use breast milk within 3–4 hours.

How long does breast milk last in an insulated cool bag with ice packs?

At an average temperature of 15 °C human milk is safe to use for 24 hours in an insulated cool bag, based on a single study by Hamosh et al, 1996 1.

How long does breast milk last in a fridge?

At 4 °C (39 °F) or below, the optimal storage time is 72 hours (3 days), but 5–8 days may be acceptable for breast milk collected under very clean conditions and stored towards the back of the fridge.

How long does breast milk last in the freezer?

When the temperature is below -17 °C (0°F) the optimal storage time is 6 months however 12 months is acceptable. Note that little freezer “ice compartments” within an old style fridge only have a storage time of two weeks 23.

Can I keep milk longer than 12 months in the freezer?

More research is needed to determine whether frozen milk is safe to use after 12 months. The Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine explains that foods frozen at -18°C are indefinitely safe from bacterial contamination however the quality of the milk may deteriorate.

Similar storage recommendations to these above are shared by The Breastfeeding Network (a UK breastfeeding charity), Wambach & Riordan, 2015 and Mohrbacher, 2010 (breastfeeding authors).

Collecting breast milk for storage

Breast milk collection tips

  • Wash hands with soap and water
  • Clean pump parts as per manufacturer recommendations
  • Containers can be washed in hot soapy water and rinsed well. The Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine explains:

Containers for human milk storage do not need to be sterilized. They can be washed in hot soapy water and rinsed or washed in a dishwasher. If soap is not available, then boiling water is preferable.

Breast milk storage containers

Breast milk can be stored in glass or polypropylene (plastic) containers with secure lids, or special freezer bags for breast milk. There are concerns about chemicals leaching from plastic containers into foods or liquids they contain 4. Although moves to use BPA free (bisphenol A) plastics such as polypropylene are helpful there are still many other chemicals in plastics.

Glass bottles

In What are the LLLI guidelines for storing my pumped milk? LLLI suggests avoiding the dangers of plastic altogether by using glass storage vessels. If freezing glass, use special glass containers designed to withstand freezing, leave space for expansion and thaw milk slowly e.g. overnight in a refrigerator.

Plastic bags

If using plastic storage bags, use those that are strong and sturdy and specifically made for storing breast milk. Take care the bags of milk are in a suitable container and can’t get punctured by other food packages. As with the hard sided containers, leave space for expansion and squeeze air out of the top of the bag before sealing.

Storage tips

  • Use a label to mark all stored milk with the date it was pumped. If it is to be used at day care you can add your child’s name.
  • To prevent waste, store breast milk in small amounts equivalent to a typical feed e.g. 60-120ml (2-4 oz).
  • Store milk in the coldest part of the fridge, usually at the back rather than in the door compartment.
  • If adding newly pumped milk to previously pumped milk—cool down the new milk in the fridge first before combining them, and label with the date of the older milk.
  • Freeze milk as soon as possible after pumping, ideally within three days of being left in the fridge 5.
  • Leave space (e.g. 2.5cm or 1”) at the top of a container for breast milk to expand in the freezing process.

Breast milk doesn’t need any special handling and can sit in a work place refrigerator that is used to store food (ABM, 2010).

Handling breast milk, mixing layers

It’s normal for expressed breast milk to separate into a milk layer and a cream layer and to look blueish, yellow or even brownish. Simply mix the layers back together before feeding the milk to your baby 6.

Gently swirl or give a good shake?

You may have heard that breast milk that has separated into layers should be gently swirled together and never vigorously shaken in case it damages the milk. As breast milk is quite robust, damage seems unlikely by the force of an average hand shaking a container of milk 7. In some situations breast milk is centrifuged at high speed to separate the layers—apparently without concerns about damaging the milk 8 9.

Using frozen breast milk

What is the best way to thaw frozen breast milk?

Breast milk can be defrosted:

  • Overnight in a refrigerator
  • By running the container under warm water
  • By standing the container of frozen milk in another container of warm water

A microwave is not a good way to thaw milk. It can create hot spots in the milk and decreases the milk’s anti infective and health qualities. And heating milk above 40°C can damage enzymes. (ABM, 2010)

How long does thawed breast milk last?

There are a mix of opinions ranging from advice to use thawed milk immediately 10 to within a few hours if left at room temperature (ABM, 2010) to use within 24 hrs in a fridge 11 12Ask Dr Sears explains that frozen milk is less able to inhibit bacterial growth compared to fresh refrigerated milk as it loses some of its immune properties.

How does freezing affect the quality of milk?

There may be some small changes to the nutritional value of frozen stored breast milk e.g. a reduction in vitamin C content, changes to some of the fats and a reduction in some of the anti-infective properties. However it is still better than formula 13 14.

Vitamins A, E, and B, total protein, fat, enzymes, lactose, zinc, immunoglobulins, lysozyme, and lactoferrin are generally preserved when freezing human milk. A few studies have found a significant decrease in vitamin C levels in frozen milk after 3 months. Bacterial growth was not found to be a problem in frozen milk for at least 6 weeks. Antibacterial activity of frozen human milk is preserved for at least 3 weeks.

Do not refreeze?

Current recommendations are that frozen milk that has been thawed shouldn’t be frozen again (Wambach & Riordan, 2015). However, a study by Rechtman et al 15 found that breast milk is very robust and Kelly Bonyata discusses their research concluding that if breast milk still contains ice crystals it can be refrozen:

If there are still ice crystals in the milk, then it is still considered frozen–  it is safe to either use the milk or return it to a working freezer.

Milk storage for premature or poorly babies

Because premature or poorly babies are more vulnerable to infection, greater care over milk handling and sterilisation is usually recommended. Check with your doctors what they advise.

Breastfeeding and Human Lactation, Fifth Edition p 484 in the chapter “The use of human milk and breastfeeding in the NICU” advises:

  • Use fresh milk within four hours of expression if left at room temperature
  • Put expressed milk in the fridge straight after expressing as long as the milk will be used within 96 hours (four days) and if not then freeze the milk straight away
  • Store each session’s milk separately unless pumping both breasts at the same time i.e. don’t combine sessions
  • Transport pumped milk to hospital on ice in an insulated container
  • Milk that has been frozen and then thawed should not be refrozen.

FAQs about stored milk

If my baby doesn’t finish their bottle, how long can I keep the leftovers?

General advice seems to be that a partly drunk bottle of breast milk should be thrown away within one hour (BFN) or 1-2 hours (ABM, 2010). Once the milk has been in contact with baby’s saliva there is a risk of bacterial contamination but no studies are available (Mohrbacher 2010, ABM, 2010).

My breast milk smells

If you are worried that your breast milk smells or tastes like soap, smells sour or like garlic, onion or other food see My Breastmilk Smells for further information. Milk that seems to have gone off should not be fed to your baby.

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What about milk collected in breast shells (drip milk)?

Drip milk collected from one breast while feeding from the other is said to be lower in fat with more skin bacteria and rather than storing this, Mohrbacher, 2010, p 461 advises it should be discarded.

What about breast milk collected while a mother has thrush?

The Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine says milk pumped through a thrush episode can still be stored:

If a mother has breast or nipple pain from what is considered to be a bacterial or yeast infection, there is no evidence that her stored expressed milk needs to be discarded. Human milk that appears stringy, foul, or purulent should not be fed to the baby.

However Mohrbacher 16 says as freezing does not kill Candida it is not clear whether reinfection is possible, but boiling the milk will kill fungal cells.

Summary

Opinions vary slightly but most sources agree that the ideal storage times for breast milk are 3–4 hours in a sealed container at room temperature, three days in the back of a cold fridge, and six months frozen in a stand alone deep freezer. Although these are the “ideal times”, they err on the side of caution because actually breast milk is so full of antibacterial agents that it can often last longer than these times when collected under clean conditions and fed to healthy term babies.

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