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How to Wash, Store, and Sterilize Baby Bottles

In many cases, good old soap and water does the job.

Parents who’ve transitioned to bottle feeding should be delighted to know they do not need a baby bottle sterilizer. In fact, all parents need to know is how to clean baby bottles by hand or in the dishwasher. The fundamentals for both are essentially the same: Clean the baby bottle immediately after use, wash with soap and water, rinse thoroughly, and dry completely. Some of the details may vary according to a family’s specific bottle feeding set-up – there’s less to clean if using disposable bottle liners, more to clean if mixing formula or using a breast pump. It’s not a hard job – in fact, it’s fairly straightforward – but it’s one that is repeated ad nauseam until bottles are phased out.

Whether washed by hand or washed in a dishwasher, bottles and other feeding equipment needs to be thoroughly disassembled: caps removed, nipples removed from caps, sealing rings removed, valves removed, etc. Anywhere that milk or formula can get trapped behind or under is a place where pathogens can thrive.

If using a dishwasher, each piece should be thoroughly rinsed under running water before being loaded. Small pieces should be placed in a closed-top basket or mesh laundry bag so they don’t wind up in the dishwasher filter, nestled against a reconstituted raisin. The dishwasher should be on a hot water cycle; that may be enough to kill germs on its own, but most products can safely withstand a dishwasher sanitation cycle as well. Before washing at all, parents should verify that the bottles are dishwasher safe.

“You don’t need to sterilize the bottles over and over again. For the first month or two, yes, but then as time goes on, you don’t need to do it,” explains Elizabeth Murray, MD, a pediatric emergency physician.  “That said, if the baby develops thrush, you have to make sure that you definitely sterilize the nipples and pacifiers after every use until it goes away. Sometimes soap and water aren’t enough to get rid of all the yeast.”

How to Clean, Care for and Sterilize Baby Bottles

  • Bottles should be cleaned immediately after use — leaving milk to curdle in the bottle makes washing harder (and much grosser).
  • Disassemble the bottle and nipple completely.
  • Washing with good soap and hot water is sufficient to kill more germs.
  • Use a dedicated bottle brush and drying mat — and don’t forget to regularly wash and dry them.
  • Rinse thoroughly, leaving no trace of soap behind.
  • Let them air dry thoroughly before storing them.
  • Sterilization can be an occasional procedure but doesn’t need to be done with every washing.

Parents should wash their hands before removing the bottles from the dishwasher. Discoloration of the plastic bottles may indicate baked milk fats from insufficient rinsing, water or soap spots, or heat damage on bottles that should have been washed by hand. Many parents prefer to wash by hand, at least at first.

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The hand-washing procedure is very similar to dishwashing — hands need to be washed and bottles disassembled and rinsed thoroughly. Hot, soapy water is sufficient to kill most microorganisms.  A dedicated bottle brush is a good idea — it avoids transferring heavier food greases that can accumulate on regular dish brushes, it can be cleaned easily and replaced cheaply if need be. No special dish soaps are necessary, although parents may feel more comfortable with dye- or fragrance-free options.

The next stage is to thoroughly rinse each part of the bottle and nipple assembly until any trace of soap is gone. Then each item should be placed on a clean towel or a special mat for air drying in an out-of-the-way place. After accidentally knocking a few nipples or o-rings to the floor in a sleep-deprived haze, the benefit of something like a grass drying rack, with its flexible plastic “blades” to keep items in place, becomes more apparent. Any brush or mat used to clean or dry bottles should be washed and dried regularly.

Bottles need to completely dry before being put away. Assembling bottles and putting them away in a cabinet wet can trap moisture and foster microbial growth. Sterilizing bottles should be done before they are dried and before they are put away. As far as sterilizing goes, low-tech options are fine. A steam bag is often as good as a fancier, more expensive sterilizer.