How To Tell If Breast Milk Is Bad? Signs And Tips To Prevent

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When you start feeding stored (expressed or pumped) breast milk to your baby, the first question that you may have is how to know if breast milk has gone bad?

Breast milk contains several nutrients, immunological components, and enzymes. Upon storage, changes in one or more of these components cause alteration in the breast milk’s appearance, smell, and taste.

Several parents report stored breast milk tasting and smelling soapy, while others describe it as metallic. In either case, understanding why these changes occur can help you learn the signs that indicate that the milk has gone bad.

Read on to know the signs that tell the breast milk has gone bad and ways to prevent spoilage.

Signs Indicating The Breast Milk Has Gone Bad

Breast milk’s taste and smell vary from one mother to another. Therefore, knowing the common signs indicating milk spoilage can prevent you from feeding your baby spoiled milk.

Here are some ways you can determine milk’s fitness for consumption.

1. Appearance

Upon storage, breast milk typically separates into two layers — milk and cream layer. The fat rises to the top to form the cream layer, while the bottom layer is called the milk layer (1).

When milk is still fit for consumption, a quick swirl causes the layers to dissolve (2). However, if your breast milk appears chunky or maintains separate layers even after swirling a couple of times, the milk has likely gone bad.

2. Smell

Breast milk’s odor could vary among mothers and even across feeding sessions. These changes are based on several factors, such as the mother’s diet and medications. Besides, an off or soapy smell is a relatively common occurrence for mothers with high lipase-containing breast milk (3). In such a case, determining spoilage isn’t easy. However, a simple test could help.

For the test, freeze a small amount of your breast milk for a week. After a week, thaw the milk and check its scent.

  • If you have high lipase milk, your milk will likely smell soapy, metallic, or fishy. However, the milk is fit for the baby’s consumption. You can deactivate lipase activity by scalding breast milk.
  • If the milk smells sour or rancid, the milk has undergone chemical oxidation. Discarding such milk is advisable. A diet rich in PUFA or rancid fats and water containing free copper and iron ions could cause oxidation, giving a peculiar smell to breast milk.

3. Taste

If breast milk tastes rancid or sour, it has likely gone bad. You can perform the same test as above — store the milk for a week and evaluate the taste changes. Soapy-, metallic-, or fishy-tasting breast milk is likely due to high lipase activity. On the other hand, a sour or rancid taste indicates chemical oxidation.

In general, breast milk stored longer than recommended may indicate that milk might have gone bad. Freshly pumped or expressed milk stored in the refrigerator for more than four days or previously frozen and thawed milk stored for more than a day are likely to go bad (4).

What Happens When A Baby Consumes Spoiled Breast Milk?

You may sometimes not know that your stored breast milk has gone bad. In such instances, accidental feeding of spoiled milk is possible. A baby may exhibit the following signs when they ingest spoiled breast milk.

  1. Refusal to feed: Experts believe that persistent refusal to feed can signify that the baby doesn’t like the milk’s taste (5). In case your baby is persistently refusing to consume stored breast milk or acts too fussy while feeding, check the taste of your milk for spoilage. When a breastfeeding baby refuses to feed, it is known as a nursing strike that may have several other reasons for it.
  1. Frequent spitting up or vomiting: Babies have sensitive digestive systems. If they consume spoiled breast milk, they are likely to experience gastrointestinal disturbances, such as diarrhea and vomiting. Some babies may also feel a lot gassier and pass odd-colored stools. If you notice your baby throwing up repeatedly, frequently passing watery stools after the feed, or displaying other digestive issue symptoms, check your breast milk and consult a pediatrician.
  1. Fever: Although uncommon, some babies may develop low to high degree fever after ingesting spoiled milk. It usually happens when the milk has bacterial contamination, most likely due to improper milk handling and storage. In such cases, babies develop fever a few hours after ingesting the stored milk, often with additional symptoms, such as vomiting and diarrhea.
  1. Severe infection: In rare cases, feeding spoiled milk to babies can lead to life-threatening infections, such as Cronobacter Sakazakii infection (6). This infection can cause severe health issues, such as meningitis and sepsis (6). It is why the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend rigorously following the guidelines for proper handling and storage of human breast milk (4).

Some other symptoms that may arise due to spoiled milk consumption are dehydration leading to excessive sleepiness and inactivity, dark-colored urine, and fewer wet nappies than usual. If you suspect your baby has any health issues and related signs due to breast milk consumption, consult a pediatrician for guidance.

Tips To Prevent Expressed/Pumped Breast Milk From Spoiling

Below are the recommended guidelines to express or pump and store breast milk to maintain its quality (4) (8).

  1. Wash your hands and breasts with clean water and soap before pumping or expressing breast milk.
  1. Adequately clean and sanitize your breast pump and accessories, including the storage containers after every use.
  1. Discard the breast pump and its accessories if you notice a mold in their tubing or the equipment looks worn out.
  1. Tightly close the storage bottle or container’s lid so that the milk is safe from chemical oxidation and absorption of odor from other veggies and fruit.
  1. Thaw breast milk in order of storage, meaning thaw oldest breast milk first. Don’t refreeze thawed breast milk.
  1. Check stored breast milk for spoilage before feeding it to the baby.  You may do so by checking the taste, color, and consistency of the breast milk.
  1. Don’t freeze the refrigerated milk to extend its storage time. You should keep the milk in the refrigerator immediately after pumping. The milk can stay in the refrigerator at 40°F (4°C) for four to six days. However, do not move the bottle to the freezer after six days to extend its storage life. When frozen immediately after pumping, the milk should preferably be consumed within six months if the freezer is separate from the refrigerator and two weeks if the freezer is inside the refrigerator (2). Always place freezer milk at the back of the freezer and never on the door.
  1. Never store breast milk in the door of the refrigerator. Place the milk container at the back of the refrigerator where the temperature is coldest and stable since it is unaffected by the door’s opening and closing.
  1. Place the storage container in an insulated cooler bag or cool towel for a few minutes if you cannot immediately place it in the refrigerator. Freshly expressed or pumped breast milk can stay consumable at 60 to 85°F (16 to 29°C) for up to four hours. Remember, the longer the milk stays outside, the higher the chances of it going rancid.
  1. Keep the breast milk away from direct sunlight, heat, and air until you store it in the refrigerator or freezer.
  1. Avoid untreated tap water use for cleaning of breast milk storage accessories to prevent milk’s chemical oxidation during storage. You may also restrict supplements rich in unsaturated fats, such as fish oil tablets, if your breast milk is sensitive to oxidation and goes rancid easily.

Frequently Asked Questions

1. How long does it take for breastmilk to go bad?

Freshly expressed breast milk can remain consumable for four hours when the room temperature is 77°F (25°C) or cooler. On the other hand, breast milk left at room temperature after feeding remains consumable for upto two hours (4). After two hours, you should discard the milk.

2. Can breast milk go bad inside the breast?

According to experts, breast milk always remains fresh in the breast (9). A mother’s diet and other factors can affect breast milk’s taste, texture, and appearance. However, it doesn’t cause the milk to spoil in the breast.

3. Can I mix breast milk from two different days?

According to experts, you can combine milk pumped on different days, if you (2):

  • Cool freshly expressed milk for 30 minutes in the fridge first
  • Add freshly expressed milk to frozen milk only if the amount of fresh milk is lesser than the frozen milk
  • Use the mixed milk within the time limit of the oldest expressed milk.

Breast milk is susceptible to degradation soon. Since breast milk pumping and storage is a hectic process, understanding the mechanism behind milk’s degradation could be helpful. If you have expressed milk, ensure it is refrigerated immediately. Store the milk in an insulated cooler bag in impossible situations, but refrigerate it within four hours. Strictly adhere to the CDC’s guidelines on breast milk pumping and storage. If you suspect that the milk has gone rancid, check for its quality before feeding it to the baby. Alternatively, observe the baby for any signs of discomfort or other health signs after feeding them breastmilk. You may even consult a pediatrician for prompt medical attention if you notice any such symptoms.

Key Pointers

  • Curdled or chunky appearance of stored breast milk may indicate spoiled breast milk.
  • A baby refusing to feed, frequent spitting up, and fever may indicate the baby has ingested spoilt milk.
  • Frequent hand washing, proper cleaning, and sanitation of breast pump accessories are some ways to prevent breastmilk from getting spoilt.

References:

MomJunction's articles are written after analyzing the research works of expert authors and institutions. Our references consist of resources established by authorities in their respective fields. You can learn more about the authenticity of the information we present in our editorial policy.
1. Breast Milk Safety Storage; Oakland County, Michigan
2. Storing Human Milk; La Leche League International
3. Milk Issues; La Leche League International
4. Proper Storage and Preparation of Breast Milk; CDC
5. Bottle Refusal; IABLE
6. Madhura Sundararajan et al.; Notes from the Field: Cronobacter sakazakii Meningitis in a Full-Term Neonate Fed Exclusively with Breast Milk — Indiana, 2018; NCBI
7. Rowena McMullan et al.; Cronobacter sakazakii Infection from Expressed Breast Milk, Australia; NCBI
8. Pumping and storing breastmilk; U.S Department of Health And Human Services
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Julie Matheney

(MS, CCC-SLP/CLEC/IBCLC)
Julie Matheney did her Master's degree in speech-language pathology and has worked on feeding and swallowing disorders for over a decade. As part of a hospital-based rehabilitation team, she works on helping children to feed and swallow. Having worked in the NICU, she discovered her passion for breastfeeding and became an IBCLC in 2017. She transitioned out of the hospital... more

Swati Patwal

Swati Patwal is a clinical nutritionist and toddler mom with over eight years of experience in diverse fields of nutrition. She started her career as a CSR project coordinator for a healthy eating and active lifestyle project catering to school children. Then she worked as a nutrition faculty and clinical nutrition coach in different organizations. Her interest in scientific writing... more

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