This page gives you some tips on how to hand express and store your breastmilk. It also answers some frequently asked questions on this topic.
You might be thinking of returning to work, or study, or planning a night out. It can also help relieve pressure from a blocked duct or mastitis. Expressing small amounts of colostrum before your baby is born can help give your baby extra milk in the first few days.
Please also refer to our downloadable leaflet on Expressing and Storing Breastmilk.
If you will be exclusively expressing (feeding only expressed breastmilk), whether for just a few days or longer, you might like to read our blog post on this.
Note: If your baby has been ill or was born prematurely please discuss this information with your health professional to check that the storage times apply. This is especially important if you are bringing your colostrum or milk into hospital for your baby.
- Can be expressed by hand, by hand pump or by electric pump. Once you know how, hand expressing is easy and needs little equipment.
- Contains anti-infective ingredients that limit the growth of unwanted bacteria.
- Should still be handled and stored carefully to stop unwanted bacteria from getting into your milk and growing.
- Stays at the highest quality when stored in a fridge, particularly when running at 4°C or below. Note: some fridges run higher at 5-10°C – if you don’t know the temperature of your fridge assume it is running at this higher temperature.
- Can be frozen, which affects some (but by no means all) of the nutrients and anti-infective ingredients of breastmilk.
When you first start to express it is common to get only a few drops of milk. As with breastfeeding, the more you practice, the easier it gets. Expressing at a different time of day may work better for you.
When might I need to express?
- Before your baby is born – you may be advised that your baby might need extra milk when they are born. You can express and store your first milk (colostrum) from 36 to 37 weeks gestation. You can read more about this here.
- In the first few days – if your baby is sleepy, or to help them attach and feed.
For both these stages your midwife will give you small oral syringes to collect your milk. These are usually 1ml to begin with.
Use the ideas in this leaflet to discover what works for you. Colostrum usually starts in tiny droplets and is often sticky – having help to collect these drops in the syringe can be useful.
- Aim to express twice a day from 36-37 weeks for no more than 10 minutes, freezing the same day.
- Once your baby is born, express as needed aiming to stimulate your breasts at least 8 times a day including once overnight through direct breastfeeding or expressing as this will increase your milk supply to meet your baby’s needs and can help you feel more comfortable.
- Once your milk is flowing, you will need a wide mouthed container like a sterile plastic pot or container that is well-cleaned and scalded with boiling water – a jug is ideal – so get this ready before you start.
Remember to wash your hands first.
Find somewhere comfortable to relax, then to help your milk to flow (let down) you might:
- Relax with a warm drink, music or TV.
- Have your baby close, or look at a photograph, clothing or toy to remind you of your baby.
- Warm your breasts in a bath, shower or using warm flannels and practice expressing.
- Try some ways to gently massage your whole breast, working from the outside toward your nipple.
Take care not to drag your skin:
- Stroke with your fingertips
- Roll using your knuckles.
- Try using circular movements.
Make a ‘C’ shape by placing your thumb above and your fingers below your breast 2-3 centimetres back from your nipple
Gently press your thumb and fingers together, release your fingers and repeat in a rhythmic movement.
Sometimes pressing inwards back towards your chest wall as you squeeze helps. You may need to experiment with how far back from your nipple to squeeze – everyone is slightly different.
When the milk flow slows, re-position your fingers and thumb (as if moving them around a clock face), then express another area of your breast.
Try to express all areas of your breast and alternate between breasts.
See this video on hand expressing from UNICEF for more ideas.
Good hygiene is very important:
- Always wash your hands before expressing and handling breastmilk and ask others giving expressed milk to do the same.
- Always use a sterile container with a lid, not the collection jug, to store your breastmilk. You can buy disposable containers. Take care with plastic bags that can puncture easily.
- Try to use a different storage container each time you collect milk. If necessary, newly collected milk may be cooled and added to previously stored milk on the same day only.
- Label the storage containers or syringes with your name, breastmilk, time and date and put inside a clean sealed bag or box before storing. Name and date the bag too.
- Store your breastmilk in the fridge or freezer as soon as possible.
- Store away from meat products, eggs or any uncooked foods. Store at the back of the fridge and not in the door.
Storing expressed breastmilk
How long can I keep my breastmilk at room temperature if a fridge is not available?
If your breastmilk is freshly expressed it will keep for 6 hours without refrigeration, either at home or away from home. See ‘travelling with breastmilk’ section below for more details.
If your baby has been ill or was born prematurely please discuss this with your health professional to check that the same storage times apply.
How long can I store breastmilk in the fridge?
You can store your breastmilk for up to 3 days where you don’t know the temperature, or it runs between 5-10°C.
Breastmilk can be stored for 5 days in a fridge running at 4°C or lower.*
*One study has shown fresh breastmilk can be used for up to 8 days when the fridge temperature is kept stable at 4°C or below.
If the fridge temperature goes above 4°C during this time, use your milk within 6 hours or throw away.
If you can’t use a fridge at 4°C, try using a cool bag or box with deep frozen ice packs (changed every 24 hours). Protect your milk from direct contact with the ice packs or it may freeze – try wrapping the ice packs in kitchen towel. The bag can also be used to carry milk.
The lower the storage temperature, the longer expressed breastmilk can be stored. The storage temperatures given here include a degree of caution so that your milk remains safe for your baby.
If you wish to store your breastmilk for longer than 5 days, freeze as soon as you can after expressing.
If taking colostrum or milk into hospital follow their storage and transport times.
REMEMBER: The more often the fridge door is opened, the more likely the temperature will rise. Try to check the temperature of every fridge (or cool bag) used for storing your milk each time you use it. If the fridge has no built in thermometer, use a fridge thermometer which can be bought cheaply from kitchenware stores.
How long can I store breastmilk in the freezer?
Breastmilk can be stored in a freezer at -18°C for up to six months.
You can store breastmilk in the ice compartment of a fridge for two weeks.
Safe Storage of breastmilk in the home
This table aims to provide a guide to how long you can store breastmilk for a full term baby with no additional health concerns.
|Fresh breastmilk including colostrum||Normal room temperature||6 hours|
|Fridge: 5 to 10°C||3 days|
|Fridge: 4°C or lower||5 days*|
|(*if temperature rises above 4°C after 3 days, use within 6 hours or throw away)|
|Frozen breastmilk||Freezer: -18°C or lower||6 months|
|Defrosting breastmilk||When defrosting in fridge||Usually takes 12 hours to defrost, then use as soon as fully defrosted|
|When defrosting milk outside fridge||Use as soon as fully defrosted|
|Milk can be transported within the safe storage times, provided storage temperatures are maintained. Note previously frozen milk must be used immediately when fully defrosted.|
Fresh milk can be transported within 24 hours, provided fridge temperatures are maintained using an insulated box & deep frozen ice-packs, and total storage & transportation times do not exceed the recommended storage times. If no ice-packs are used when transporting, use within 4 hours.
Why are there variations in recommendations for storing expressed breastmilk?
More information about this can be found at the bottom of this page.
Please note that previous versions of our leaflet are still available in our shop and the information is still correct, noting the above.
Feeding baby expressed breastmilk
What happens if my baby doesn’t take all of one bottle? Can I put it back in the fridge or on the side use it again?
Once the baby has drunk from a bottle of expressed milk it should be used up within an hour or thrown away. To avoid wasting your expressed breastmilk it is best to offer the baby only a little (e.g. 30ml) at a time until you know your baby’s pattern. You can do this by keeping most of it in one container, in the fridge, and using it to top up the baby’s bottle a little at a time.
Defrosting frozen breastmilk
How do I defrost my milk?
Ideally, defrost frozen breastmilk in the fridge. This milk should be used once fully defrosted which usually takes about 12 hours. If your breastmilk is still frozen after this time or you need to use it quickly, try defrosting under cool, then warm, running water. Dry the outside of the container with kitchen paper before use and use immediately. If you frequently find your milk is frozen after 12 hours in the fridge, try to freeze in smaller quantities.
How long can I keep defrosted breastmilk?
Defrosted breastmilk should be used straight away once it has fully defrosted. Throw away any unused milk.
Why can’t I defrost breastmilk in a microwave?
Breastmilk should not be defrosted in the microwave because it heats unevenly, destroying antibodies and nutrients. There is also a risk of scalds and the milk would need to be left at room temperature before use.
Travelling with expressed breastmilk
How do I bring my milk home, which I have expressed at work or elsewhere?
Try to use a cool bag for transportation and put the milk in the fridge once you are home.
Fresh breastmilk can be transported within 24 hours provided storage temperatures are maintained using an insulated box or bag and deep frozen ice-packs, and total storage and transportation times do not exceed the recommended storage times.
Previously refrigerated breastmilk can be kept cool (10°C or below) for up to 24 hours when in a well-insulated bag with deep-frozen ice-packs. Take care not to freeze your milk by wrapping the ice-packs in kitchen paper first. Ensure this milk is used within the recommended refrigeration storage times as mentioned above.
Re-heating expressed breastmilk
How do I re-heat expressed breastmilk?
Expressed breastmilk can be used straight from the fridge. It does not need to be warmed. If you would like it warmed place the container (such as a bottle or sealed cup) in warm water to take the chill off. Take care not to over warm.
If the milk smells sour DO NOT USE.
When stored, the cream and milk may separate out. This is normal. Shake gently to mix before use.
Some babies are reluctant to take milk from a bottle, particularly at first. Try offering milk from a cup or spoon. They may be less reluctant when someone else gives it. If expressed milk is refused try not to worry – your baby will make up any missed feeds by breastfeeding more often or for longer on your return. See also info on this page about introducing a bottle.
Finding a breast pump
The two UK breast pump hire companies are:
Your midwife, health visitor or a local breastfeeding supporter may also be able to give you details of pump hire services near you.
UKAMB (UK Milk Banks – find out about donating or receiving milk)
Antenatal Expressing – more detailed information about this
(links checked May 2023)
Cook, P. Food Standards Agency. MCN10. 2006 Handling and storage of expressed breastmilk pp1-12 https://www.nice.org.uk/guidance/ph11/documents/mcn-consultation-expert-report-handling-and-storage-of-expressed-breast-milk2
Eglash, A, Simon, L, and The Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine, ABM Clinical Protocol #8: Human Milk Storage Information for Home Use for Full-Term Infants, BREASTFEEDING MEDICINE Volume 12, Number 7, 2017 (c) Mary Ann Liebert, Inc. pp390-395 https://abm.memberclicks.net/assets/DOCUMENTS/PROTOCOLS/8-human-milk-storage-protocol-english.pdf See correction to freezer temp here: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6065517/
Forster, Della A et al. (2017) Advising women with diabetes in pregnancy to express breastmilk in late pregnancy (Diabetes and Antenatal Milk Expressing [DAME]): a multicentre, unblinded, randomised controlled trial. The Lancet, Volume 389, Issue 10085, 2204 – 2213 https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(17)31373-9/ppt
Hands A. (2003) Safe storage of expressed breastmilk in the home. MIDIRS Midwifery Digest, vol 13, no 3.
Royle, J. Weaver, G. (2016) Guidelines for the Preparation and Handling of Expressed and Donor Breast Milk and Special Feeds for Infants and Children in Neonatal and Paediatric Health Care Settings. 2nd Ed. Section 6, p18-32
IMPORTANT: If you have any further questions on expressing or breastfeeding, do contact your midwife, health visitor or breastfeeding supporter for help and support. You can also call the National Breastfeeding Helpline on 0300 100 0212, open 9.30am-9.30pm every day of the year.
Page reviewed and updated November 2019
Variations in Recommendations for Storing Expressed Breast Milk
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.
Please note that previous versions of our leaflet are still available in our shop and the information is still correct, noting the above.
- HANDS A. Safe storage of expressed breast milk in the home. MIDIRS Midwifery Digest, vol 13, no 3, Sep 2003, pp 378 & 385.
- BfN (Breastfeeding Network) leaflet. Expressing and storing breast milk. September 2004.
- National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) Public health guidance 11: Maternal and child nutrition. March 2008.
- Department of Health. Off to the best start. Crown Copyright 2007 278957 5p 200k Nov 09 (BEL) 299223.
- MCN consultation: Expert report & Handling and storage of expressed breast milk. 05 April 2007.
- La Leche League International. “The Breastfeeding Answer Book” Updated March 2012.