Written by Anabel Hands
In 2003, aware of the confusion for mothers resulting from the significant variations in recommendations for storing expressed breast milk, the BfN decided to collate all available information from primary research papers, and national and local guidance documents. These findings were published in the MIDIRS Midwifery Digest 1. The study found that storage temperature clearly determines storage time. Recommended storage times given in our Expressing and Storing Breast Milk leaflet were based on the primary research papers discussed in the study. You can find the link to this leaflet below for more information 2.
Our publication was sent to other breastfeeding organisations, including the Department of Health (DH), to facilitate agreement on storage recommendations using the results of primary research. The DH asked the National Institute of Clinical Excellence (NICE) to review breast milk storage guidelines, and official storage recommendations were changed from 24 hours in the fridge to up to 5 days at 4°C or lower, two weeks in the ice compartment of a fridge and up to six months in a freezer (March 2008) 3.NICE also recognised that refrigeration preserves the unique properties of breast milk more effectively than freezing. The National Health Service (NHS) adopted these guidelines, which appear in their leaflet Off to the best start (updated November 2009) which you can find a link to below 4.
Although a little different to BfN guidelines, the NICE and NHS recommendations took into account that fridge temperatures can vary and that a 5-day storage time covered most situations, including the need for milk expressed at the end of one working week to be used at the beginning of the following week. Some busy hospital neonatal units restrict the time milk is refrigerated as an added precaution; this is because their fridges are opened very frequently, which may affect the storage temperatures 5.
Other breastfeeding organisations, such as La Leche League, updated their published recommendations to distinguish between acceptable storage (8 days in the fridge) from ideal storage (72 hours in the fridge), and also recognised that refrigerated expressed breast milk was preferable to frozen breast milk (March 2012) see link below for more information. These recommendations are in line with the BfN leaflet 6.
It is important for mothers and breastfeeding supporters to note that leaflets and recommendations inconsistent with the published research are still in circulation, particularly on the Internet, and that countries outside of the UK may recommend different guidelines.
2. BfN (Breastfeeding Network) leaflet. Expressing and storing breast milk. September 2004.
4. Department of Health. Off to the best start. Crown Copyright 2007 278957 5p 200k Nov 09 (BEL) 299223.
5. MCN consultation: Expert report & Handling and storage of expressed breast milk. 05 April 2007.
6. La Leche League International. The Breastfeeding Answer Book Updated March 2012.