Food safety for babies: A comprehensive guide for parents
Read about what you and other caregivers of your baby should keep in mind when preparing and storing your little one's food.
You’ve kept your baby safe in your womb for nine full months and now your little one is finally here! Find out how you and other caregivers can continue keeping him safe through learning about food safety.
From milk preparation and storage (both breastmilk and formula) in his infant days, to keeping his solids fresh and safe after he turns six months — this article* covers it all.
Why you should be careful about food preparation
Young children and infants can be particularly vulnerable to food-borne illnesses because their immune systems are not developed enough to fight food-related bacterial infections such as those caused by E. coli, Salmonella, Campylobacter, and Listeria.
Such infections can make your little one extremely sick, which is why it’s so important to practice optimum hygiene practices when handling and preparing his food.
It’s equally important for other caregivers, such as your helper or your child’s grandparents, to also be careful about sticking to good hygiene practices when preparing your little one’s food.
The first step: Handwashing
Whether your child is a newborn or toddler, proper and frequent handwashing is crucial to curb the spread of nasty bugs that could make your child very ill.
Your hands can easily pick up germs from routine daily activities — e.g. changing dirty diapers, handling raw meat or fish or touching your pet — and spread these germs easily and quickly to your child if you don’t wash your hands often and properly, especially before preparing his food.
Remember these three steps to proper handwashing:
- Wet your hands thoroughly with warm water and add soap.
- Thoroughly scrub your hands, wrists, fingernails, and in between fingers for at least 20 seconds.
- Rinse, then dry hands with a clean cloth towel or use a disposable paper towel.
You and other caregivers will need to wash your hands before and after handling food, and after changing a diaper, using the bathroom or touching pets.
Handling expressed breastmilk
If you need to express your breastmilk for your baby’s meals, do keep the following safety tips adapted from La Leche League International (LLLI) in mind.
*Always wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water before expressing milk and before handling and storing it.
Types of containers
- Choose glass or hard-sided plastic bottles with well fitting lids
- If using plastic, avoid using containers made with BPA (bisphenol A), identified with the number 3 or 7 in the reycling symbol.
- A safe alternative is polypropylene (it is soft and is semi-cloudy). It is indicated by the number 5 recycling symbol and/ or the letters PP.
- Always wash milk storage bottles in hot, soapy water, remembering to rinse well, and then air-dry before use.
- Do not fill the bottle right to the top with milk. Leave an inch of space to allow for expansion as the milk freezes.
Note: Plastic bottles become brittle when frozen and can break if dropped. If the bottle breaks, dispose of the milk inside it.
- Always use freezer milk bags that are specially made for storing human breastmilk.
- Before sealing the bag, squeeze out the air at the top, leaving about an inch in the bag for milk expansion.
- Never use disposable general-use plastic bags for storing breastmilk as the risk of contamination is greater. Also, there is a risk that chemicals in the plastic may leach into the milk.
Storing your breastmilk hygienically
To ensure the freshness of stored breastmilk and make sure that it does not get contaminated, remember the following storage guidelines from LLLI.
- Date your milk before storing. If you are sending expressed milk to your child’s daycare, label the container or bag with his name.
- Whenever possible, refrigerate or freeze breastmilk right after it is expressed.
- Freshly expressed breastmilk can be kept at room temperature for not more than four to six hours. The milk should still be kept as cool as possible to prevent it spoiling.
- Only refrigerate breastmilk if your baby will consume it within a maximum of five days. Otherwise, freeze the milk for not more than six months.
- Place the milk-filled containers right at the back of your fridge or freezer where it is the coolest. Never store breastmilk in the door of your fridge/freezer where it is the warmest. Place it away from raw, frozen meat and/or fish.
- If you don’t have a fridge or freezer, use an insulated cooler bag to store your milk.
- Reduce wastage by storing only the amount your baby usually drinks in each bag/ container.
On the next page, read about safety guidelines you should follow when preparing formula milk, your baby’s solids and more.
Handling formula milk
- Always follow the manufacturer’s instructions when preparing formula milk and check the expiry date at the point of purchase.
- Once your baby has finished drinking, do not put the bottle with unfinished milk back in the fridge for later consumption. This is because bacteria from your child’s mouth can enter the bottle while feeding. These germs can then multiply even if the formula is refrigerated/ re-heated. To avoid this, make only as much formula as your baby will drink in a feed.
- As with expressed breastmilk, ensure proper handwashing before preparing formula and use washed and air-dried bottles.
- Do not leave formula milk at room temperature for more than two hours, as bacteria can rapidly grow and multiply in food at this temperature. Any formula left out for more than this time period should be thrown away.
Handling baby food
Once your baby starts eating solid food, a whole new set of food safety rules should be kept in mind. Of course, as with milk preparation, washing your hands (caregivers, too) is of utmost importance prior to food handling and preparation.
Keep the following tips in mind and also share them with your helper or other caregivers of your little one:
- Always separate raw and cooked food, in the fridge and during preparation. Have separate chopping boards for meat and fish, fruit and vegetables.
- Cook meat thoroughly.
- If you are reheating food for your little one, bring it to a full boil and let it cool, remembering to test the temperature before feeding your baby.
- If you give your baby jarred food, always check that the safety button on the lid hasn’t popped. Get rid of any jars with rusty lids or chipped glass and always check the expiry date when purchasing.
- Use detergent and hot water to wash all items and utensils that are used to prepare baby’s food, including chopping boards, blenders and food processors.
- Never feed your baby directly from a jar and then put the leftovers back in the fridge. Saliva on the spoon may contaminate the food. Consider placing a portion of the food in a dish and adding more from the bottle (using a clean, dry spoon) if needed. Keep the remainder in the bottle in the fridge and throw away any left in your baby’s bowl or plate.
- Never give honey to a baby younger than one year of age. Honey may contain the clostridium botulinum organism that could cause serious illness or death through a condition known as botulism.
- Do not give raw or unpasteurised milk to infants and young kids as it may contain harmful bacteria that can make your child very sick.
- When out and about, never place your little one’s dirty diapers in the same bag that you carry bottles or food due to the risk of contamination.
- Do not leave your baby’s solid food out at room temperature for more than two hours.
- Don’t feed your child fruit that has cracked or split skin, as bacteria may enter through this opening. The same goes for eggs with even slightly cracked shells.
What are the signs of food poisoning and food-related illness and when should you seek medical attention for your child? Keep reading on the final page of this article.
By following strict hygiene procedures, you can prevent most food-borne illnesses. But sometimes, mistakes do happen and it’s important for you to know what signs to look out for in your little one.
According to experts, if your baby gets food poisoning, he’ll probably start to show symptoms two to 48 hours after eating the food. Symptoms include diarrhea, vomiting and fever, and usually abate in about two days, but can last for upto two weeks in bad cases.
When to call the doctor
If your baby (regardless of age) has any of the following symptoms, he could have severe food poisoning (or a nasty viral stomach infection) and will need medical attention immediately.
- Bloody diarrhea
- Very high fever that lasts for over two days
- Not drinking fluids
- Inability to keep fluid/solids down because of vomiting
Your child’s doctor will be able to conduct the necessary tests to find out exactly what is causing the symptoms (food poisoning or a stomach flu) and based on the results, prescribe the appropriate treatment.
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