Expressing and Storing Breastmilk

9 March 2023
Posted by: Chelsea

Virtually all medical specialists will advise that ‘breast is best’ for both the mother and the baby. Expressing and storing breastmilk is a big part of being able to achieve that philosophy.

Why breastmilk is best

In most cases where both the mother and baby are healthy, breastfeeding offers major advantages for both.

For the baby, the nutrient balances are ideal and there is little concern relating to foreign bodies or pollutants. Breastmilk also plays a major role in helping a baby’s immune system to fully develop.

In the case of mothers, there is now ample evidence to show that women who breastfeed may be significantly less likely to develop breast cancer in later life. A whole range of other diseases seems to be less prevalent in women who have breastfed their babies than those who did not.

It’s not for everyone

However, there may be many reasons why a woman physically can’t (or chooses not to) breast-feed their baby:

  • some medical conditions may make it difficult, impossible or inadvisable. A doctor will usually advise what your options are in such circumstances;
  • in some instances, your baby may never develop an adequate ‘latch-on’ reflex and other feeding methods may be required to ensure they’re adequately fed;
  • a mother may choose not to directly feed their child at the breast for any one or more of many reasons. There is no right or wrong here – every mother must make their own decision on this.

The role of expressing breast milk

In cases where the mother would prefer their baby to have breastmilk but where feeding at the breast isn’t possible for any of the above reasons, there may be the alternative of expressing their milk.

Expressing simply means taking milk out of the breast by means other than a baby suckling at the breast to do so. The breastmilk is then stored through refrigeration or freezing for subsequent use through a bottle when the baby needs it.

This is a non-medical DIY procedure that apart from perhaps the first demonstration or two, does not require specialist interventions.

The three main methods used for expressing are:

Different mothers may try all these methods and settle for the one that suits them best. The exact methodology will differ from one method to another and your midwife or post-natal care professional may have different recommendations as to the ‘how to’ in each case. They will all though be very eager to help you find the method that suits you.

The principles

All methods require two steps:

  • triggering the ‘let down’ reflex to start the milk flowing. When feeding at the breast, this normally is triggered subconsciously in the mother by the baby snuggling and starting to suckle or at times, by the sound of the baby crying. In expressing, the absence of the baby can initially make triggering slightly more challenging and the mother must be comfortable and relaxed to start with. Some practice may be required;
  • the capturing of the breastmilk (in a bottle or bag) once it is flowing. Many new mothers are shocked at the force of milk as it leaves their breast and initially, it can be a little messy until you’re practised. Some women like to have their partner present to help if possible, while others prefer to be alone.


At room temperature, assuming moderate temperatures, breastmilk should stay fresh for a few hours – perhaps 4-5 on average.

More commonly, it is often quickly refrigerated where it will remain useful for feeding for up to 72 hours. In the freezer compartment of a refrigerator it should be OK for up to 2 weeks or if in the freezer drawer itself (-18 and below), 2 months.

Always remember to write the date on the bag you’re freezing it in.

To re-use, it should be defrosted and gently warmed in warm water (not a microwave) but it should only ever be very gently warm when used and NEVER hot.

Getting advice

Some women report that their decision to express and bottle-feed was driven by a fear of somehow ‘failing’ at breast feeding if they tried it.

There may be many reasons why choosing expressing would be sensible or unavoidable but fear should never be one of them. Do contact your ante-natal care specialists for advice if you find that you’re worried about breastfeeding your baby.

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