Children younger than five years are at an increased risk for foodborne illness and related health complications because their immune systems are still developing. Young children with developing immune systems cannot fight off infections as well as adults can. In addition, young children produce less stomach acid that kills harmful bacteria, making it easier for them to get sick.
Food poisoning can be particularly dangerous for young children because food poisoning often causes vomiting or diarrhea or both. Since children’s bodies are small, they can quickly lose a lot of body fluid causing dehydration.
Food safety for young children depends on your food safety behaviors as parents and caregivers. Handwashing is especially important, by children and those caring for them.
Handwashing: Your first step in keeping your children safe
Your hands can pick up bacteria and spread bacteria to your baby.
For example, from:
- Diapers containing feces and urine
- Raw meat, poultry, seafood, and eggs
- Pets, such as dogs, cats, turtles, snakes, birds, and lizards
Washing your hands can remove harmful bacteria, so wash your hands often to help prevent foodborne illness. Also, teach your children how and when to wash their hands.
3 critical handwashing steps
- 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 paper towel so the germs are thrown away.
When to wash your hands
- Before and after handling food.
- After using the bathroom, changing diapers, or handling pets.
Who’s not washing?
Did you know that according to a Penn State University study on mothers with infants less than four months old, the handwashing rates were abysmal?
Don’t let yourself be part of the above statistics!
Safety tips for preparing and storing infant formula
- Carefully read and follow the instructions on the infant formula container.
- Wash your hands well before preparing bottles or feeding your baby.
- Clean and sanitize the workspace where you will prepare the infant formula.
- Use clean, sanitized bottles.
- If you use powdered infant formula, use water from a safe source to mix it. If you are not sure if your tap water is safe to use for preparing infant formula, contact your local health department.
- Use the amount of water listed on the instructions of the infant formula container. Always measure the water first and then add the powder.
- If your baby is very young (younger than 3 months old), was born prematurely, or has a weakened immune system, you may want to take extra precautions in preparing your infant’s formula to protect against Cronobacter, a rare but serious infection that germs in powdered infant formula can cause.
- Use prepared infant formula within 2 hours of preparation and within 1 hour from when feeding begins.
- If you do not start to use it within 2 hours, immediately store the bottle in the fridge and use it within 24 hours.
- Throw away formula left in the bottle after feeding your baby.
- Follow the manufacturer’s recommendations for preparing bottles before filling them with formula or milk. Observe “use-by” dates on formula cans.
Heating breast milk or formula
Baby’s milk or infant formula does not need to be warmed before feeding, but some people like to warm their baby’s bottle. If you do decide to warm the bottle, here is advice on how to warm it safely:
- In hot tap water: Place bottle under hot, running tap water until the desired temperature is reached. This should take 1-2 minutes.
- On the stove: Heat water in a pan. Remove the pan from the heat and set the bottle in it until it’s warm.
When heating baby’s milk, always shake the liquid to even out the temperature and test on top of your hand—not the wrist (this is one of the areas least sensitive to heat)—before feeding. Milk that’s “baby-ready” should feel lukewarm.
Never heat breast milk or infant formula in the microwave. Microwaves heat baby’s milk and food unevenly, which results in hot spots that can burn a baby’s mouth and throat.
How to store mother’s milk
If you pump your breast milk, careful handling and storage is essential in preserving its special qualities. Here’s how to properly store breast milk:
- Refrigerate breast milk if it will be used within 3-5 days. If the milk is not used in that time, it should be frozen—but only for a maximum of 3-6 months. Date it when you freeze it.
- Store breast milk in the back of the freezer, not in the freezer door. The door is the warmest spot in the freezer. This avoids the possibility of unintentionally defrosting the milk, which can happen with frequent openings and closings of the door.
- Expressed breast milk: 3-5 days with clean expression technique in the refrigerator and 3-6 months in the freezer.
- Formula (stored in individual baby bottles): 2 days in refrigerator. Not recommended to store in freezer.
- Whole milk: 5 days in refrigerator and 3 months in freezer.
- Reconstituted evaporated milk: 3-5 days in refrigerator. Not recommended store in freezer.
Note: Before you express breast milk, be sure to wash your hands with soap and water. If soap and water are unavailable, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol. Make sure the area where you are expressing and your pump parts and bottles are clean. Breasts and nipples do not need to be washed before pumping.
Handling baby’s food safely
Protect your baby and young children by following these dos and don’ts for preparing and handling their food safely.
- Check to see that the safety button on the lid of commercial baby-food jars is down. If the jar lid doesn’t “pop” when opened, don’t use the product. Discard any jars with chipped glass or rusty lids.
- Use detergent and hot water to wash all blenders, food processors, and utensils (including the can opener) that come in contact with a baby’s food. Rinse well with hot water after washing.
- Transport bottles and food in an insulated cooler when traveling with the baby. You shouldn’t use perishable items (milk, formula, or food) left out of the refrigerator or without a cold source for more than two hours. Cold temperatures keep most harmful bacteria from multiplying.
- Freeze homemade baby food by putting the mixture into an ice cube tray. Note: One cube equals one serving. Cover with heavy-duty plastic wrap and place the tray in the freezer. Once the food cubes are frozen, pop them into a freezer bag or airtight container and date it. Store for up to three months (discard unused food after three months). As an option, you may use small jars for freezing. Leave about 1/2 inch of space at the top because food expands when frozen.
- Don’t feed a baby from a jar of baby food and then put it in the refrigerator. Saliva on the spoon may contaminate the remaining food. Instead, put a serving size on a dish. Refrigerate the food remaining in the jar. Throw away the food in the serving dish that’s not eaten.
- Don’t use honey as a sweetener to entice babies to drink water from a bottle. Honey isn’t safe for children less than a year old. It can contain the Clostridium botulinum organism that could cause serious illness or death.
- Don’t give raw or unpasteurized milk or unpasteurized fruit or vegetable juice to infants or young children. Unpasteurized milk or juice may contain harmful bacteria. Unpasteurized juices are normally found in the refrigerated sections of grocery stores, health-food stores, cider mills, or farm markets. Young children should avoid these juices. If you can’t tell if a juice has been processed to destroy harmful bacteria, either don’t use the product or boil it to kill any harmful bacteria.
- Don’t place dirty diapers in the same diaper bag with bottles or food. Harmful bacteria from a dirty diaper can spread to baby’s food.
- Don’t give infants “teas” brewed from star anise. Brewed “teas” containing star anise have been associated with illnesses affecting infants. The illnesses ranged from serious neurological effects, such as seizures, to vomiting, jitteriness, and rapid eye movement.
Safe microwaving of solid foods
Follow these precautions when microwaving baby’s food.
- Don’t microwave baby foods in the jar. Instead, transfer the food to a dish before microwaving it. This way the food can be stirred and taste-tested for temperature.
- Microwave 4 ounces (120g) of solid food in a dish for about 15 seconds on high power. Always stir, let stand 30 seconds, and taste-test before feeding.
- Don’t heat baby-food meats, meat sticks, or eggs in the microwave. Use the stovetop instead. These foods have a high fat content, and since microwaves heat fats faster than other substances, these foods can cause splattering and overheating.
- When heating baby’s food, always stir, let stand 30 seconds, and taste-test before feeding. Food that’s baby-ready should taste or feel lukewarm.
Important tips to remember for baby
- Don’t leave baby food solids or liquids out at room temperature for more than two hours.
- Don’t put a bottle or baby-food back in the refrigerator if the baby doesn’t finish it.
- To reduce the risks of choking, be watchful of babies and young children while they are eating, and teach children to chew their food well.
This article is based on the following articles: “Once baby arrives from food safety for moms to be,” “Food safety booklet for pregnant women, their unborn babies, and children under five.”