What You Need to Know About Pumping and Storing Breast Milk During a Natural Disaster

Editor’s Note: This post is not intended as medical advice. Always consult a medical professional or physician before treatment of any kind.

breast pump and frozen breast milk
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Over the past week, as Hurricane Irma has inched closer to Florida, thousands of worried Floridians are scrambling to leave their homes, hurriedly attempting to transport their most vital possessions. Those who are planning to stay in their homes are working hard to protect them, while making plans to deal with potential power outages.

I can only imagine that parenting during a natural disaster like Hurricane Irma is extremely stressful, especially if you have babies or very young children. My heart goes out to fellow parents who are in the thick of this right now.

If you are a pumping mom, you probably have an added layer of stress to contend with. When your baby relies on pumped milk for nutrition on a regular basis — either because you exclusively pump for them, or do so part-time — living without an electrical source for a few days or longer could present a real problem.

And for those moms who have a freezer stash of milk, you may be wondering what will happen to it all if the power goes out. How much milk will you be able to salvage? How much will have to be tossed out?

Let’s start with the issue of the pumping. Kellymom recommends getting a car adapter or battery pack for your breast pump. You may also want to acquire a hand pump, which doesn’t rely on electricity at all. These items can usually be found at most baby-specific stores, like Babies R Us, Buy Buy Baby, or even box stores, like Walmart or Target. You can also ask a local friend if she might have one to borrow. Be sure to properly sterilize a hand pump, should you end up getting a used one.

Hand expression is another option, and doesn’t require electricity. If you don’t know how to express your milk by hand, now is a good time to learn. It’s not as difficult as it sounds, and there are several videos online for assistance. You can also contact your local La Leche League leader, who should be able to walk you through the steps to express your milk by hand. (I used to do this all the time when I volunteered for La Leche League.) There are several methods to hand-express milk, but as long as you see drops of milk leaving your breasts (which you can collect in a bottle or storage bag), you are doing it right.

Now, let’s talk milk storage during a natural disaster or when you have lost power. And let’s be clear, any mom who has pumped milk in the freezer has worked her butt off for every last one of those ounces, so losing any of it would be a very big deal, indeed.

The good news is that, according to the USDA, items actually stay frozen in a freezer for about 48 hours, though it’s important that your freezer remain full and packed so the items are insulated. Also, you must not open the freezer during this time. The USDA recommends any empty spaces in the freezer be filled with frozen bottles, ice, or ice packs, if possible. Keep your frozen milk away from freezer walls and in the center of the freezer.

After those 48 hours, if your power remains out, you can try to move your milk stash to a freezer that has power. If that’s not a possibility, don’t fret just yet. As long as your milk has any ice crystals in it — even if parts of the milk has thawed — it is still considered fresh and can be fed to your baby, according to KellyMom. Phew, right?

There is even some evidence that suggests completely thawed milk can be refrozen at a later date with no harm to a baby. A study from 2016, published in Breastfeeding Medicine found no bacterial build up or significant changes in breast milk nutrition that had been refrozen. Of course, you should run this by your child’s pediatrician, especially if you have a preemie or an immune-compromised child that you are pumping for.

But what if you are evacuating and transporting your liquid gold out with you? First, it’s recommended that you make sure wherever you are going has empty freezer space available for you. Then, it’s just a matter of keeping the milk frozen well enough until you get there.

As the blog, Human Milk News explains, any cooler will work for transporting milk, though it is best to use a size that accommodates the amount of milk you are transporting. Meaning, nothing too large, so that the milk stays packed close together. In general, you want to make sure that you pack the cooler tight, not allowing for any extra spaces. You can fill the any extra spaces with crumbled-up paper or newspaper. You may also want to consider storing your pumped milk bags in sealed storage bags to avoid leaks.

As for cooling the milk, you can use regular ice or gel packs. Some recommend dry ice, and you can definitely use that if you have it, but it’s not always readily available (and you don’t want to go out of your way to secure it). Also, make sure not to open the cooler until you reach your destination. Tape it closed if you think it might open during travel.

Again, keep in mind that whatever happens to your milk, if you see ice crystals in it at all, you don’t need to toss it. And of course, you can always reach out to your pediatrician with any questions.

Most of all, just do your best, and try not to obsess too much about your milk stash. It would be awful if you lost any of it, but the most important thing is keeping your family safe. So if you need to evacuate, don’t let milk storage and transport delay you.

Parenting through a natural disaster is insurmountably difficult; we wish all the families impacted by Hurricane Irma our very best.

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