National Network for Child Care's Connections Newsletter

Dawn L. Hentges
Foods and Nutrition Specialist
Cooperative Extension Service
University of Illinois

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Infants and young children are more likely than adults to get sick from bacteria found in food and milk. This is because their immune systems are not yet fully developed. Eating food that contains disease-causing bacteria may cause vomiting, nausea, diarrhea, abdominal cramps, and sometimes fever. The symptoms may be mild to severe and may appear anywhere from 30 minutes to seven days after eating the contaminated milk or food. Parents and caregivers can help prevent illness caused by bacteria in food by safely preparing, storing, and serving formula and food. Listed below are recommended food handling practices for infant formula, expressed milk and solid baby foods.


Use infant formula before its expiration date. All infant formula containers have a “use before,” or “expiration” date to ensure that the consumer receives a fresh, high quality product. Vitamin levels decrease after the expiration date. There may also be changes in the physical appearance of the formula. For example, the formula may look discolored and the fat may have separated from the liquid.

Avoid freezing infant formula or using formula that has been frozen. Freezing does not affect nutritional quality or safety, but physical separation of the product may occur.

Throw away any formula remaining in the bottle after feeding. Germs from the baby's mouth may have gotten into the remaining formula. Even if the formula is refrigerated, these germs can grow and multiply. Neither refrigeration nor reheating will completely prevent this growth.

Tightly cover and place cans of liquid formula in the refrigerator immediately after filling the bottle. Open cans of ready-to-use formula will remain safe for up to 48 hours. Prepared formula should be used within 24 hours.

Use sterilized bottles and boiled water when preparing infant formula until a physician or other health professional decides it is unnecessary. Be sure that your hands, the counter, and all equipment used during preparation are clean.

Milk, formula, or food left out of the refrigerator for more than two hours may be unsafe. Do not leave a bottle in the crib with an older baby. The milk may become unsafe to drink over time. Falling asleep with the bottle in the infant's mouth can also cause tooth decay.


Glass or heavy plastic baby bottles containing milk or infant formula may be warmed in the microwave oven. Do not overheat. Be sure to remove caps or nipples before warming. Since heat accumulates in the top of the bottle, shake the bottle to distribute the heat. Test the temperature by sprinkling a few drops on the inside of your wrist. Your skin is more sensitive to heat here.

Do not microwave disposable baby bottles or bottles with disposable plastic inserts. Heating milk in these bottles may cause hot spots. This may weaken the seams causing the plastic to burst and spill hot milk on the baby. To heat a bottle with a disposable insert, place it under hot tap water until the desired temperature is reached.


Expressed breast milk is highly perishable. Milk should be collected in sterilized 4-ounce plastic bottles or plastic bottle liners. Immediately store the milk in the refrigerator. If you must take breast milk with you, carry it in an insulated cooler with ice or chill-packs.

Any milk that will not be used within 24-48 hours should be frozen immediately. Leave one inch of space at the top of the milk storage container to allow for expansion during freezing. Label the milk with the date it was expressed so that older milk can be used first. Frozen breast milk will keep for 3 to 4 months.

Thaw breast milk in warm water only – not in hot water or in a microwave oven. Do not refreeze breast milk. Shake the container of expressed milk before using it to distribute the fat within the milk.


At the Store:

  • Select foods with clean labels.
  • Check the “Circle of Safety” button in the center of the cap. A “down” button means the jar is sealed.
  • Check the expiration date on the cap.

At Home:

  • Wipe cap with a clean cloth.
  • Check that the safety button is still “down.”
  • Run warm tap water under the cap for a few seconds to make opening easier.
  • Spoon out the desired amount of food into a separate feeding dish. Do not feed the baby straight from a jar of baby food. Saliva on the spoon may contain bacteria. These bacteria will contaminate the rest of the food in the jar.
  • Re-cap the jar. Store the re-sealed jar in the refrigerator. Use the contents within two to three days.
  • If making homemade baby food, use a brush to clean areas around blender blades or food processor parts. Harmful bacteria may be present in any old food particles and they may contaminate other foods.
  • Use detergent and hot water to wash and rinse all utensils (including the can opener) which come in contact with baby's food.


Do not microwave solid baby foods in the jar. Studies have shown that the food is unevenly heated. The center of the food may be 170-200 F, while near the glass sides of the jar, the food is only 48 F. If you must heat an entire jar, place it in hot water and stir frequently. Or transfer the food to a dish and heat it in the microwave. Stir and taste-test the food for temperature before feeding. Babies should not be fed foods heated higher than 90-120 F.

Fat heats faster than other substances in a microwave oven. Avoid microwaving baby food meats, meat sticks, or eggs. These foods have a high fat content and microwaving them can cause splattering and overheating. Warm these foods over hot water instead.


Immediately refrigerate any unused portions of food or liquid. Throw out any food or liquid that has been left at room temperature for over two hours.


Expressed breast milk: Refrigerator – 5 days, Freezer – 3 to 4 months

Formula: Refrigerator – 2 days, Freezer – not recommended

Whole milk: Refrigerator – 5 days, Freezer – 3 months

Reconstituted evaporated milk: Refrigerator – 3 to 5 days, Freezer – not recommended


  • Use unopened cans of formula before the expiration date printed on the cans. Store evaporated milk up to 12 months.
  • Heat formula properly:
    Disposable bottles or bottles with liners: Heat in hot tap water, not in the microwave.
    Reusable glass or hard plastic bottles: Remove the cap and nipple before heating in the microwave.
  • Shake bottle before testing the temperature on the inside of your wrist.
  • Discard any unused milk left in the bottle.


Strained fruits and vegetables: Refrigerator – 2 to 3 days, Freezer – 6 to 8 months

Strained meats and eggs: Refrigerator – 1 day, Freezer – 1 to 2 months

Meat/vegetable combinations: Refrigerator – 1 to 2 days, Freezer – 1 to 2 months

Homemade baby foods: Refrigerator – 1 to 2 days, Freezer – 3 to 4 months


  • Use unopened jars before the expiration date on the jar.
  • Check to see that the safety button on lid is down. Discard the jar if the lid does not pop up when opened or if it is not sealed safely.
  • Heat foods properly:
    Meat, meat sticks, eggs, and entire jars of food should be heated over hot water, not in the microwave.
    Other foods: transfer to bowl or heating dish and microwave. For four ounces of food, microwave on high for 15 seconds; stir and let stand 30 seconds.
  • Stir and test the temperature of the food before feeding.
  • Do not feed the baby straight from the jar.Source: USDA, FSIS. Winter 1992. Food News for Consumers, Vol. 8, No. 4


Anonymous, “Baby foods in the microwave?” Gerber Products Company, Fremont, Michigan.

Parmley, M.A. Winter 1992. Daycare and Food Safety – Emerging Issues. USDA, FSIS Food News for Consumers. 8(4):10.

Williamson, C. and Catadlo, G. 1992. Microwave-safe for baby. USDA, FSIS News for Consumers. 8(4):8.

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