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

  • Share
  • Read Later
Image Source / Getty Images

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.”

MOREHow Disasters Bring Out Our Kindness