If you’re bottle-feeding your baby or using formula, you’ll find one of the most challenging parts of your first couple of weeks at home…
… is keeping up with all the dirty bottles!
There will be close to a dozen of them per day, at the beginning, which can be tricky for anyone to stay on top of.
(You haven’t lived until you’ve realized baby is hungry and you don’t have any clean bottles. Good times!)
When it comes to keeping them clean, you have a few options:
A bottle sterilizer vs the dishwasher vs hand washing.
Overall, a bottle sterilizer is the most convenient (though most expensive) option in the early days when you have to keep up with tons of dirty milk bottles. The dishwasher, with a simple bottle bin or basket, works great when the daily volume of bottles comes down a little bit after a month or so.
Hand washing bottles is ultimately a bit of a pain but has some serious advantages, and many parents find it to be the simplest and best solution.
Let’s dive in a little deeper to the pros and cons of each method, plus how to choose the right option for your household.
Pros and Cons of Bottle Sterilizers
Bottle sterilizers are small (relative to an entire dishwasher) devices that use steam to clean and sterilize dirty baby bottles.
They come in two main varieties: Countertop sterilizers and microwave sterilizers.
The countertop products blast your bottles with hot steam and then dry them thoroughly so they’re ready to use.
Microwave sterilizers hold the bottles in place while you evaporate water in the microwave, creating sterilizing steam — it’s faster but the bottles will need to cool down and dry after before you can use them.
Here are some of the advantages and disadvantages of cleaning your bottles this way.
Relatively fast: Standalone sterilizers take about 45 minutes, while microwave sterilizers take just a few minutes. In both cases, they’re faster than a dishwasher.
Run it whenever: No need to wait for a full dish load, just collect a few dirty bottles and then get this baby going.
Can be expensive: Expect a standalone sterilizer to run between $30-50 and a microwave option to cost about $15-20.
Not the end-all-be-all: You still need to rinse bottles after use before sterilizing (a bottle that’s been sitting all day — like at daycare — will need to be soaked and hand-washed or dishwashed).
Compatibility issues: You might need to buy a sterilizer that matches the kind of bottles you use for the best fit. If you change bottle-types (which can happen with an unpredictable newborn), they might not be a perfect fit in the sterilizer anymore.
Pros and Cons of Putting Bottles in the Dishwasher
For an extremely thorough and sterilizing cleanse, you can run most baby bottles through the dishwasher on the top rack using a simple containment bin or basket.
(Most brands of bottles should be dishwasher safe, but check yours to be sure before you accidentally melt them!)
Here some of the benefits and drawbacks to using the dishwasher to clean dirty bottles:
Saves space: No bulky sterilizer on your counter, just a small basket that can be stored in a cupboard (or in the dishwasher itself) and pulled out when you need it.
Convenient (and energy-efficient): Just run the bottles with your regular dishes. If you can make the timing and schedule work, you won’t need to use any water or energy you weren’t already going to need anyway.
Cost-effective: Dishwasher baskets usually cost $5-10 or so. Grab a few and you can wash as many bottles as you need in one go.
Timing: Has to be timed around other dishes. Running just a load of baby bottles through the wash would be an enormous waste of energy and water.
Takes a long time: Dishwasher cycles usually take a minimum of around 2 hours and could take up to 4 depending on your settings. The bottles won’t be ready to use for a while.
Might need special soap: You don’t need to use only the most premium, organic baby-safe dishwashing detergent. But I wouldn’t use the off-brand lemon-scented pods you got on clearance either. Use a high-quality mild soap without any fragrance.
Pros and Cons of Handwashing
If the above sounds like too much of a hassle, you can always just handwash your baby’s bottles.
It’s a good idea to completely sterilize baby’s bottles after each use for the first month or two, but after that you can relax and just keep them clean with handwashing (though it’s a good idea to still sterilize after a few uses).
To handwash bottles, you’ll need some mild, non-scented detergent and hot water mixed in a clean, separate bin that’s ONLY used for washing bottles. Don’t throw the bottles in with your usual dish load in the sink!
Use a dedicated (and clean) bottle brush and dry them fully on a separate rack or mat.
Here are the pros and cons of this approach.
Simple: This is the preferred method for most veteran moms who don’t want to bother with finicky sterilizers or wait on long dishwashing cycles. Again, in the beginning, you’ll need to sterilize using one of those methods, but you can quickly move into mostly just handwashing bottles soon enough.
Energy-efficient: Handwashing uses some hot water, but no energy or other special equipment.
Fast: Once you have the materials on-hand, you can get your bottles washed in no time.
Bottles come out soaking wet: You have to let bottles (including caps and nipples) dry completely before you put them away. They’ll dry faster in a sterilizer or dishwasher — after handwashing, they’ll have to sit on the drying rack for a while.
A lot of manual effort: Handwashing is simple and fast, but it requires the most work and effort from you. Doing it here and there isn’t so bad, but washing multiple loads of bottles per day will really wear you down.
Babies begin feeding less and less often as they grow.
According to WebMD, you’ll go through a bottle of breastmilk or formula about every 2-3 hours at first with a newborn. That number will slowly start to tail off over time.
(The same holds roughly true for breastfed babies, but we’re talking specifically about how many bottles you’ll need.)
If you’re exclusively bottle-feeding your baby, you’ll likely want a bottle sterilizer on-hand during the newborn phase. You’ll need more clean bottles than your dishwasher can reasonably handle — and for the first month or two, it’s really recommended that you sterilize each bottle after every use.
After about two months or so, you don’t need to sterilize the bottles every time. A thorough hand washing is enough — just remember, you ought to be hand washing baby bottles in a separate basin with a dedicated brush and drying rack just for clean bottles.
When the volume of bottles you go through each day starts to come down (from around 8-12 to 6-7), you might consider just cleaning your dirty bottles in the dishwasher once a day instead of constantly staying on top of the job.
Alternatively, at this point, you could hand wash a batch of them once per day and sterilize them all in the dishwasher once per week or so.
Stuff You’ll Need to Keep Your Baby Bottles Clean
Here’s a quick shopping list including all the gear and equipment you’ll need to keep baby’s bottles clean your first few months at home.
Bottlebrush & dishwasher basket – We used this kit from Munchkin that comes with both (Amazon link).
Bottle drying rack or mat – Use a vertical drying rack like this one to save some counter space (Amazon link)
Disposable bottle liners (optional for less washing) – If this all just sounds like a nightmare, you can reduce your washing load by using disposable bottle liners like these (Amazon link).
A bottle sterilizer – If you’re going to use one, invest in a sterilizer with a good built-in drying cycle like this one from Papablic (Amazon link).
A handwashing basin – Get one that folds or collapses like this one to save some space.
In the early days (the first month or two home with baby), the bottles need to be sterilized after every use.
If you’re breastfeeding and only using the occasional bottle, the dishwasher is fine, but if you’re going through a dozen bottles per day I highly recommend getting a sterilizer.
After about two months or so, you can mostly just handwash the bottles and sterilize them once per week or so — whether you choose to do it in a sterilizer or dishwasher is up to you.
Chances are, as long as your baby is using bottles, you’ll use a combination of these three methods to get the best results. They all have different pros, cons, and ideal uses!
What did I miss? What’s your best veteran hack for keeping the bottles clean when you first bring baby home?
And don’t forget to check out some other feeding and cleaning guides that might come in handy:
Hope this helps, and good luck, parents!