Expressing at work and leaving bodily fluids in the communal fridge

man-opening-refrigeratorWhen C was 6 months old, I had to go back to work. Although I was returning full time (a part time position in my job would mean working full time for a lower salary), I was able to spend two days a week working from home. C would go to nursery while I was in the office, and I would juggle her and my job the rest of the time. (I say ‘the rest of the time’ rather than ‘the other two days’ as this kind of arrangement inevitably spills over into evenings and weekends.)

Her tender age meant that milk was still her main source of nutrition, and I quickly realised I was faced with a dilemma: express milk at work, or switch to formula during the day. If I didn’t pump in the office, my supply could drop to the extent that I’d struggle to feed her myself on the days I was a home, and I’d also find it hard to express enough milk to give her for nursery.

I appreciated that pumping at work wasn’t necessarily an easy option, however. The most pressing concern was the location – where on earth was I going to do it? I didn’t really fancy a toilet or shower cubicle, and I couldn’t think of any obvious alternatives. I was aware that recent legislation requires employers to provide a suitable space for nursing mothers to express, but I seriously doubted that this had been tested in my (predominantly male) workplace before. Although I was right about this, it turned out that I needn’t have worried. The head of admin had breastfed herself, and was completely sympathetic to my predicament. Admittedly, she had to think for quite a while before she came up with what was basically a broom cupboard, but as it was a lockable broom cupboard, I wasn’t going to complain.

So far, I’ve been managing to express milk virtually every day I’ve been at work, although scuttling in and out of the pump cupboard makes me somewhat self-conscious, as there is no obvious reason why I would want to spend 20 minutes in there every lunchtime. I question myself regularly about why I’m so worried about being ‘caught’ going in there, and have come to the conclusion that it’s basically because I don’t want to encourage anyone at work to think about my boobs, especially not in the inescapably undignified process of being milked. I don’t mind people knowing I breastfeed C, but I’d rather not have to explain about the pump.

Storing the milk therefore requires a certain amount of nonchalance. Whilst my colleagues are all liberal, intelligent people, I’m not really inclined to advertise the fact that I’m keeping my bodily fluids in the communal food storage area. Instead, I simply walk in each afternoon avoiding eye-contact and put an odd-looking package directly in the refrigerator. (To disguise the bottle, I’ve ended up wrapping it in several layers of plastic grocery bags, and although this does effectively obscure its appearance, it also looks rather strange.) Whether anyone has guessed what I’m doing I don’t know, but as yet, they’ve been too polite to ask.

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The antibacterial properties of breast milk

lab_technicianMany years ago, breast milk was thought to be sterile. While this is far from being the case (it actually contains all manner of germs1), the role it plays in helping keep babies free from harmful disease means it does display some pretty impressive bug-busting capacities.

The immunological components of breast milk help to protect both a mother’s breast and her baby from infection during feeding, as well as aiding the development of the baby’s immune system2. They also have another useful consequence, however: protecting breast milk from disease for some time after it has been expressed, enabling it to be stored. Several studies have examined whether it is safe to keep expressed milk for short periods, and there is general agreement that it can be stored for 8 hours at room temperature (25 degrees C), for three days in the fridge (4 degrees C) and for up to a year in the freezer (-20 degrees C) without any increase in the levels of pathogens (harmful bacteria) it contains3.

Not only does breast milk inhibit the growth of pathogens, however – it actively reduces them. This was convincingly demonstrated in a piece of research examining what happened to milk during short term storage4. Milk was collected from 9 mothers and divided into three samples: the first was analyzed the same day; the second was refrigerated (at 4 to 6 degrees C) for 48 hours; and the third was refrigerated for 72 hours. Each sample was then contaminated with an E.coli solution (the kind of nasty bacteria that dwells in toilets) and left for two hours. When the samples were tested, levels of E.coli had reduced by 80% in both the milk that was fresh and the milk that was 48 hours old. Levels had also diminished in the 3 day-old milk, but only by around 10%, indicating that the antibacterial properties, whilst still present, had started to degrade by this point.

If your baby needs to feed from a bottle or cup, a considerable body of research indicates that it’s safe to give him breast milk that has been stored in the fridge for up to three days, or in the freezer for several months. There is also evidence that if the milk you express does come into contact with germs (keeping pumping equipment sterile in your bag at work isn’t always easy), then the bactericidal components of breast milk should be able to take care of them, providing the milk is under two days old. There may still be potential issues associated with feeding stored, rather than fresh breast milk to your baby: various chemical changes occur in milk once it has left the body, and it’s possible some of these may affect its nutritional value3,5,6. Nevertheless, expressed breast milk remains a healthy alternative to formula, and as a result of its antibacterial qualities, you can rest assured that if your baby can’t feed from you directly, he still has a safe source of food and drink.

  1. Mastitis: causes and management. World Health Organization; 2000.
  2. Adv Food Nutr Res. 2008;54:45-80.
  3. Acta Paediatr Suppl. 1999 Aug;88(430):14-8.
  4. J Pediatr Gastroenterol Nutr. 2007 Aug;45(2):275-7.
  5. Acta Paediatr. 2001 Jul;90(7):813-5.
  6. Biofactors. 2004;20(3):129-37.