How to Properly Heat Breastmilk Without Destroying the Nutrients

It is a known fact that breastmilk is the first choice for feeding your baby in the first 6 months. If you are not sure about it, you should read our guide on breastfeeding where we talk about the importance and the challenges that come with breastfeeding. Just to sum up why is good to breastfeed your baby, the breastmilk contains all the energy and nutrients a baby needs for the first months of existence and may even continue for up to two years and beyond.

The World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Funds (UNICEF) has recommended 6 months of exclusive breastfeeding as the optimal way of feeding babies. You should aim to feed your baby only with breastmilk (expressed breast milk inclusive) in the first six months of his life.

If that is not possible, then you should use formula. No water, drink or any additional food is to be administered. With breastmilk, a baby has all the nutrients it needs for the first six months. The breast milk is 88% water, more than enough to satisfy t baby’s thirst. Its mix of fat, protein, and carbohydrate meets the baby’s requirement for development.

With exclusive breastfeeding comes the challenge of sustainability as working mothers return to work at a period when Exclusive Breast Feeding (EBF) is most crucial. Many working mothers have overcome this challenge by expressing breast milk and freezing or refrigerating it as the case may be. If you opt to do that, read our post on best ways to store your breastmilk while you are at work.

This then opened up another challenge – the need to heat breastmilk- before giving it to a baby. The reason why it is a good idea to heat the milk before giving it to your baby, is because babies are already comfortable with the lukewarm temperature of milk coming directly from their mothers’ breasts. Several women heat frozen or refrigerated breastmilk differently and for different reasons, but one remains is for sure the cheapest and the simplest way of doing it and that is the “warm water bath method”.

What is The Best Way to Heat Breastmilk?

The best way to heat breastmilk is to use the warm water bath method. This method requires you to fill a bowl with warm water and place the bottle or bag containing the milk in it for some minutes.  Shake to mix well and test the temperature before giving it to your baby. With this method, you can never go wrong.

Other Ways of Heating Breastmilk

There are other ways to warm up breastmilk and preserve the nutrients. Although these methods are not our first choice, they are still very good especially if you are in a hurry, or it’s night, and you don’t want to stay awake for 5 minutes until the milk is at the right temperature. In this case, an electric bottle warmer might be the right choice for you. You can read about our top picks for the best milk bottle warmers here.

The Running Water Method: In the running water method, warm tap water is run over the closed bottle or bag containing the breastmilk for a few minutes until it becomes warm. To ensure even distribution, the container should be rotated slowly while under the running tap. While this method is effective, it involves a lot of water waste; thus, less economical and not really environmentally friendly.

The Countertop Method: With this method, the bottle or bag of breastmilk is placed on a countertop or tabletop until it warms up to room temperature. This method is one of the most economical ways of heating your breastmilk because it requires nothing extra. It is however not the best because of the tendency to leave breast milk out and exposed for too long. Exposed breast milk can post a high risk for babies with endangered immune systems. I, personally, wouldn’t recommend this method, and I have never used it myself.

Electric Bottle Warmers: For this method, the bottles are placed in an electric warmer for some minutes. The instructions on how to use each brand of warmer are usually written on them. You will have to be very careful though, as it is very easy to overheat the breastmilk. So, care must be taken to avoid this.  Too hot temperature destroys valuable nutrients in breastmilk. The baby is also harmed too. ALWAYS test the milk on your arm before offering to your baby. I used to also taste it, but it is not the same, as my tongue can’t really say if the milk is too hot for my baby or not. The best method to test the milk is still my arm.

 DON’Ts When Heating Breastmilk

Because the breastmilk is a mix of micro and macronutrients and live components, a higher temperature of the milk will actually destroy those nutrients. So, here are some things that you should try to avoid when heating up your breastmilk. This also applies to formula.

No Microwave: It is not advisable to heat breastmilk in microwave ovens as microwaves do not heat liquids evenly. This could lead to the development of hot pockets of liquids. Even though you will stir the milk before offering to your baby, you still cannot control properly the temperature, and you could end up destroying the important nutrients in the milk.

No use of boiling water or hot water, when heating your breastmilk, because it is more difficult to control the temperature, and, once again, you risk overheating the milk. With overheated breastmilk, be rest assured that your baby’s milk is lacking the nutrients.

Breast milk should not be put directly into a pan to heat up. Doing such exposes the milk to bacteria that can contaminate it. The baby is then at risk. This method makes milk get overheated.

What is the Optimal Temperature for Breastmilk?

One way to test the temperature of your warmed breastmilk is to squeeze a few drops on your wrist or the back of your palm. It is best to feel lukewarm – not hot nor cold against your skin. For optimal result, the below temperature guide may help your judgment.

32 to 78º F: This is rather cold but safe. A baby can feed well on breastmilk within this temperature range but, it is not the best for baby’s digestion.

98.6º F: This is the best temperature for warmed breastmilk. At 98.6º F, breastmilk has the exact temperature of the milk coming directly from a mother’s breast. The temperature is also not enough to destroy the living components and nutrients of breastmilk.

.99º to 105º F: This is higher than the normal body temperature but not high enough to destroy the nutrients in breastmilk.

106º F and upward: It is not ideal to heat breastmilk this high. At this range, it goes beyond the recommended lukewarm to a hot temperature which poses danger to babies and destroys the nutrients in the breastmilk.

Refrigerating or freezing your breastmilk, and warming it up, is a very common practice among mothers who need to go back at work, or who need to be away from the baby for more than 3 hours during a day. If you need to do that, don’t feel guilty for being away from your baby. You are doing already the EXTRA mile by pumping your milk out, and storing for later use.

Unfortunately, lots of governments ignore the importance of breastfeeding, and have very crappy laws when it comes to maternity leaves. Depending on where you live and your situation, you might need to face the fact that you will need to go back to work after 3 months (I can’t even imagine leaving my 3 months old to go back to work, but I know a lot of mothers do so). As long as you are well informed, and ready to commit to pumping, and then storing your milk, your baby will be well-fed.

And this is sometimes a good opportunity for the fathers to get involved in the feeding of their babies. I remember that my husband used to be very upset with the fact that he would miss so much out (the cuddles most precisely) while I was holding my daughter and breastfeeding her. He was very happy whenever he had the chance to do it by himself.

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