Feeding directly from the breast is usually the most convenient way to feed breastmilk. But, there might be times when this isn’t possible.
Whether you’re nursing a premature baby, navigating full or engorged breasts or returning to work, expressing breast milk is a helpful skill to learn.
And once you've expressed, understanding how to safely store this breast milk is essential to retain the integrity and nutritional goodness of every drop.
What is expressing and how does it work?
Expressing is the act of removing milk for our breasts. Once expressed, our breast milk needs to be stored correctly (either in the fridge or freezer) to be used at a later date.
Our experience of expressing breastmilk is completely unique. While some of us will find the process straightforward, others might also find it challenging or difficult to navigate. Plus, the quantity of breastmilk we express is dependent on a range of factors (such as our milk supply, the time since our last feed, our baby’s age and even how often we express).
In general terms, there are three ways to express breastmilk:
By hand using gentle massaging strokes towards the nipple to trigger our let down reflex.
- With a manual pump using a breast shield attached to a pump handle and collection bottle and squeezing a hand pump gently and rythmically.
- With an electric pump that uses the same process as manual pumping, but without the need to manually squeeze.
For women with a high milk supply (or even oversupply issues , expressing prior to feeding can foster a more comfortable feeding experience. Expressing a small amount of milk before a feed can soften engorged breasts, relieve pressure and help encourage a good, deep latch when feeding.
Plus, if you’re concerned about low milk supply, expressing extra milk after breastfeeding can help to increase your body’s milk production.
How to properly store breastmilk
Storing breastmilk is an exercise of routine and timing. After expressing, our elixir can be stored in clean, airtight containers or even purpose-built breastmilk storage bags (often sold at baby stores or pharmacies).
Once expressed, time and temperature limits apply to retain the integrity of our breastmilk. If left for too long or at the wrong temperature, our breastmilk can lose its nutritional value and potency.
Here are a few guidelines to keep in mind:
Freshly expressed breastmilk can be stored:
- At room temperature (26ºC or lower) for 6-8 hours
- In the back of the fridge (below 4ºC ) for up to 72 hours
- In the freezer compartment of a fridge (at -15ºC or lower) for two weeks
In a deep freezer (at -20ºC or lower) for 6-12 months
- At room temperature (26ºC or lower) for 4 hours or less
- In the back of the fridge for up to 24 hours
Remember: don’t refreeze previously frozen milk
- At room temperature (26ºC or lower) until the end of the feed
- In the fridge for four hours or until the next feed
- Remember: don’t refreeze previously frozen milk
That’s why labelling and dating milk prior to storing is so important. Plus, our breastmilk’s composition changes as day turns to night and aligns with our circadian rhythms.
So, add a simple “AM” or “PM” to your labels to ensure you’re feeding sleepy ‘melatonin’ milk in the evening and energising ‘cortisol’ milk in the morning.
How to prepare stored breast milk for use
Depending on what feels right for you, stored breastmilk can be fed to your baby using a cup, spoon or bottle.
To warm stored breastmilk, simply place it into warm water. Always use fresh breastmilk first, and thaw frozen breastmilk as needed by placing it into warm or cool water.
As a general rule, stored breastmilk should be warmed to a lukewarm temperature before feeding.
Remember: do not microwave breastmilk. The rich nutrients and composition of breastmilk will be destroyed in a microwave and will often heat the milk beyond a comfortable temperature.