Family Matters

Breast Milk During the Storm: With Power Gone, Moms Safeguard Their Stash

When freezers fail, breastfeeding moms come to each other's rescue to save precious breast milk

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Eliza Stein hardly remembers what clothing and baby gear she grabbed on her way out of her New York City apartment when her family lost power, but she did make sure to bring along one vital item: her breast milk. She descended 35 floors in the pitch-black stairwell of her Chelsea high-rise, her 11-week-old son in one arm and 50 bags of frozen milk in the other.

Stein deposited her stash in a freezer belonging to the parents of a friend. “It’s kind of like liquid gold,” she says. “I can’t just let it go to waste.”

With power out in much of New Jersey and swaths of New York in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, breast-feeding moms have been frantically making arrangements and matches, scouting out available freezers and using Facebook to link up those with thawing breast milk with those lucky enough to have electricity and freezer space to spare.

Pumping breast milk is a time-consuming proposition, and many mothers have spent dozens of hours stockpiling milk they rely upon to nourish their infants when they return to work after maternity leave. That’s the case with Frances Ames, who was supposed to return to her job as an attorney this week now that her infant daughter is 3 months old. Ames, from Maplewood, N.J., has spent the past month collecting and freezing milk for her baby. With power gone, she’s added ice and dry ice and has been running a generator intermittently to keep the milk cold. All the food in her combination refrigerator/freezer could potentially spoil, but, says Ames, “I don’t care about anything else except for the breast milk.”

(MORE: Storm Sandy Closed Schools, But Were Officials Too Eager to Cancel Class?)

Breast milk, bursting with antibodies, is actually a pretty hearty substance, says lactation consultant Katy Linda, who created tips on preserving breast milk to help moms prepare for the storm. Breast milk placed in a full freezer should remain frozen for 48 hours. And breast milk that’s gone slushy is still considered frozen, according to the Human Milk Banking Association of North America. And research in the journal Breastfeeding Medicine suggests that even thawed breast milk that’s been unrefrigerated for up to eight hours can be safely refrozen. 

If in doubt, says Linda, use common sense, and take a whiff before feeding thawed milk to baby or refreezing it. “If it’s gone bad, it will smell bad,” she says. “You will know.”

For moms who produce too much milk and typically freeze the surplus, being faced with having to “pump and dump” borders on lactation sacrilege. Moms without electricity in Sandy’s aftermath can use manual pumps — rudimentary gadgets they’ve rarely, if ever, used — instead of electric ones to maintain their milk supply. But they’ve got nowhere to store the milk they extract.

That’s why some are donating their milk to babies who need it, via a Facebook page maintained by the New Jersey chapter of Human Milk for Human Babies, a group that fosters milk sharing. Many experts caution against mom-to-mom donation, since private donations aren’t screened for disease or pasteurized as are donations to official human milk banks. But many mothers are at ease with the concept, rationalizing that if a donor mom feeds her breast milk to her own baby, it’s probably safe.

(MORE: Milk Banks vs. Milk Swaps: Breast Milk’s Latest Controversy)

In Montclair, N.J., which has been without power since the storm hit, Chelle Hayes has been serving as a depot, collecting milk from mothers who are donating their stores rather than watch them go sour. She’s keeping the milk in her deep freezer, which she’s running off a generator, until she can ship or hand-deliver it to families in need. “I am dedicated to this milk,” says Hayes, mom to a 7-month-old.

So is Kristina Reed, a mom of two in Lakehurst, N.J., who is amazed — and grateful — that she hasn’t lost power. Reed has frozen more than 200 ounces of milk since her son was born 10 weeks ago; she prepared for Sandy by freezing bottles of water to help keep her milk icy if the power went out. When it stayed on, she removed the frozen bottles, freeing up room in her freezer. On Wednesday, she posted that she has space to spare to help safeguard another mother’s precious commodity. “I’m happy to help anyone close by who needs it,” she wrote. “…We never lost power so were really lucky.”

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Great article. I'm in NY and while I was in the small lucky population that didn't lose power I have had to dump about 50 ounce of milk in my fridge so far because I couldn't send excess milk in my freezer to the milk bank and nobody I know with freezer space has power. :( I had posted a message on HM4HB hoping to help someone in need, but since so many people don't have power and lost all their posessions, there is not too much activity going on there right now.


@marchmama1 Try the HM4HB Global page, and ask the admins there to repost your request on the HM4HB pages in the surrounding areas. Try Twitter too. It's awful to have to dump milk down the drain. :(

charlenawt 1 Like

I'm glad this topic is getting some press.  I know at least 3 moms who lost breastmilk during Hurricane Isaac.  I was upset to hear about it after the fact because I never lost power and had plenty of freezer space.  I had to throw out breastmilk due to allergies when my son was a newborn and I know how heartbreaking it is!

chase.jodinechase 2 Like

This is a really important story, thanks for focusing on it, Bonnie. It is so heartwarming to see the outpouring of support from people who are offering freezer space and support to moms whose precious freezer stashes are melting.

I became  concerned last week about moms who were facing evacuation or power outages and I wrote a blog post Friday with first-hand accounts from moms who have lived through similar situations like Irene and Ike. I knew Katy Linda was working on her advice post and I wanted to give real-life examples to frame her advice so moms would take the situation seriously - and would know they could take steps to preserve their stash, with planning.  There have been thousands of hits on my page from families seeking information. 

Our emergency planners need to do more to protect infants in emergencies including issuing planning checklists with specific advice for the caregivers of infants. Planners need to make sure the right advice is available - how robust is human milk and can you use it after it's been thawed for 24 hours? What about 48 hours? Can you refreeze it? Research suggests the answer is yes, but there is conflicting advice out there.

Moms who are breastfeeding are vulnerable to well-meaning suggestions that they switch to infant formula and we still have infant formula drives and inappropriate distribution of infant formula right here in North America during disasters. Moms are often told their milk will "dry up" because of stress - they don't realize it's the milk ejection reflex that suffers from stress and their breasts will still make milk if they just keep putting their babies to the breast. Skin to skin contact is a valuable tool to relax and get the happy milk ejection hormones flowing. Officials need to stress this information.

I urge all who are in health care who advise parents who care for infants, and all emergency planners, to review the recommendations published after the fires and floods in Australia last year by Dr. Karleen Gribble and Nina Berry on how to protect infants in emergency situations in developed worlds. 

It's not just moms with freezer stashes who need help - moms who are breastfeeding need support to continue. Moms who are feeding infant formula and breast milk together need to be encouraged to continue to breastfeed. Moms feeding formula exclusively need to know to purchase ready-to-feed formula in advance, and enough water to properly clean bottles and nipples.

If you are in health care and work with infants or if you are in emergency planning, please take a look at my post and the links to Dr.Gribble's study.

kmarinellimd 2 Like

Dear Bonnie,

Thanks for spreading the word on this important issue in disasters. I would like to reiterate for the future in emergency preparations for breastfeeding and pump-dependent women: Rule #1 always HAVE A PLAN. If there is any warning, having a plan for your stored milk and what you will do to keep expressing milk if you use a pump is no different than having a plan for your family. I quickly wrote up some help for moms with stored milk and for those who are pump dependent right before the storm struck, as in CT I was in the path of the storm, and having lived through last year's October storm with no power, water or sewer for 9 days, I know what this means to moms! The CT Breastfeeding Coalition put it up on their website. It can be found here:

Hope this information is also helpful to moms out there. We plan to write a better and referenced document when things get back to normal. This was off the top of my head in the face of crisis descending!

Again Bonnie, thanks for being on top of this! You are a fabulous advocate for the breastfeeding community!

Kathleen Marinelli MD, IBCLC FABM

nancyholtzman 1 Like

@Stylin_Momma Nice article & quote, Katy! :)

melisahebe 1 Like

@TodaysMoms @stylin_momma @timehealthland wow! Last year I had gallons stashed. Lucky not to have lost a drop back then!


I use one of those "rudimentary gadgets" and have for 2.5 years. It's the least expensive option as far as pumps go and works great, stop ragging on it.