Pumping Breast Milk Just Got a Little Bit More Serious

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When I was still breastfeeding, I remember reading a thread about cleaning breast-pump parts with laser-eyed intensity. “Our pediatrician put it this way,” one woman wrote. “You’re serving a meal, not doing surgery.” Everyone seemed to agree that we could all relax a little, where the cleanliness of breast-pump parts was concerned. Brand-new guidelines from the CDC, however, encourage a higher level of vigilance.

A single case prompted the CDC to wonder whether parents were being properly informed about cleaning and caring for pump parts. After an infant contracted a rare Cronobacter infection (which led to meningitis and developmental delays), a local health department, the FDA, and the CDC investigated the infection’s source. According to the CDC’s report, traces of the bacteria were found in the infant’s mother’s breast-pump parts, pumped breast milk, and sink. The mother reported leaving her pump parts to soak in soapy water before cleaning them at a later time. The affected infant had been born prematurely, increasing the risk of infection.

“This was the first report of a Cronobacter infection linked to a contaminated breast pump,” Dr. Anna Bowen, CDC medical officer, told Parents magazine. “But other babies have gotten sick from drinking milk obtained using a pump contaminated with different types of germs.”

Under the new guidelines, the CDC recommends cleaning all parts at every use. This means that a particularly common time-saving tip — storing dirty pump parts in a fridge between uses — is not recommended. Dr. Bowen confirms: “Although refrigerating used pump parts between uses might be okay if the pump kit is not contaminated, cleaning the pump kit after each use is safest and is particularly important for babies who are younger than 2 to 3 months old, were born prematurely, or have weakened immune systems.”

This isn’t a cheap or particularly convenient option, but moms who struggle to find the time to clean parts after pumping — or who want to avoid germ-riddled communal kitchens — can purchase multiple sets of pump parts. After some awkward and stressful kitchen interactions, that’s what I chose to do.

At a time when the future of health care is fragile at best, the CDC’s guidelines are a solid reminder about what working moms with young babies are actually doing when they’re pumping: It might not be surgery, but it is providing nourishment for a still-vulnerable person. In addition to a clean, private place to pump, breastfeeding moms need adequate breaks to clean properly and guard against infection. Unlike what some might think, the ability to breastfeed safely isn’t a bougie indulgence — it’s a matter of health.

Pumping Breast Milk Just Got a Little Bit More Serious