Written by Lara Taylor, Specialist Midwife
I’ve got to say, out of all the amazing things our body can do, creating Colostrum has to be one of the most intricate and advanced. Unfortunately, in my years supporting women and birthing people in the early postnatal period, I’ve found its value is underestimated. I still so often hear ‘I’m not producing enough milk’, so let me enlighten you around the wonders of Colostrum and focus on those early days with your beautiful new baby.
So, ‘what actually is Colostrum?’ Well, it’s the very first milk you produce after you have birthed your baby, but it can appear in the latter stages of pregnancy too. It’s regularly nicknamed Liquid Gold, not only because of its thick, sticky consistency and rich gold colour, but because it’s tailored for your individual baby’s specific needs. Yes, another tick for the body’s amazing abilities!!
So now you know what it is, let’s look a little deeper into what’s in it, why we produce it, and its benefits…oh and we’ll quash a few myths whilst we’re here!!
I’ll also guide you on how to harvest your colostrum, and why that might be considered an option for you on your feeding journey.
Colostrum is not only low in favts and sugars but is also very easily digestible, despite it being such a thick consistency. As well as coating your baby’s intestines to help promote a healthy gut, it’s also packed full of white blood cells that help fight bacteria and produce antibodies. Yes, already it’s building your baby’s immune system to protect against illness and infections. It also contains a vast amount of nutrients: vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, which help cells to grow and support your baby’s development. In particular vitamin A and magnesium, which are necessary for vision, skin health, heart and bone development. Who knew that our body could create such greatness to help give our baby the best start?!
I know from spending time on a neonatal unit that colostrum is advised as a primary feeding source for babies who are born prematurely, or are unwell. So, knowing about these wonderful ingredients and how its tailored to your individual baby’s needs, I can absolutely see why!
Now if you’re in your 2nd or 3rd trimester you may have woken up from a night's sleep wondering why you have a wet patch around your breast area, or noticed your breasts are occasionally leaking a yellow fluid into your bra. No, your breasts aren’t infected or have anything wrong with them… it’s your first sight of Colostrum! Your body is already preparing to feed your baby, with the early colostrum production being triggered by those fabulous hormones, in particular Prolactin. Although they won’t be working to their full potential just yet!
Lara’s Top Tip: I’d recommend being prepared and making sure you have a packet of Lil-Lets breast pads handy. Always keep a couple with you in case of a surprise leak
There are advantages in encouraging milk production in the 3rd trimester and commencing Colostrum harvesting. This is the process of stimulating the breasts by hand to provide the first milk for collection and storage, for use soon after birth. Practicing this from around 36 weeks can enable you to become familiar with your breasts and how they work, as well as increase your confidence in your body's ability to produce what baby needs. It can also help with hand expressing in the early days, with your baby and you may also feel better prepared for breastfeeding, if that’s what you decide to do. Storing your expressed colostrum and taking it with you to hospital can support your feeding journey. It can be used to help encourage babies to breastfeed, to help regulate their blood sugars and can be used to feed baby in cases where you may be separated. It can also be given alongside formula feeding, so whichever way you choose to feed your baby, you can still incorporate Colostrum into your feeding plan.
Lara’s Top Tip: Plan ahead and buy 1ml capped syringes in readiness for commencing colostrum harvesting. Using them can make the process so much easier. Make sure you have labels suitable for freezing and make sure you have a resealable freezer bag to store them in.
You can start the process after 36 weeks, but I’d recommend doing so slowly, there really is no rush with this! It’s a gentle process and you really need to take care of your breasts. Maybe start once a day for 1-2 minutes and increase over time, to 5-10 minutes 3-5 times a day. But it really is what suits you!
Lara’s Top Tip: Please always check with your Midwife that Colostrum harvesting in pregnancy is suitable for you. There are some reasons why it may not be advised.
So, if you feel you’re ready to get started, here are my preparation tips:
Your harvested colostrum can be saved in a syringe and stored in the fridge, at a temperature of 2-4 degrees, for up to 48 hours. You can keep adding to the same syringe throughout the day and once full, label with your name, date and time and transfer to a resealable bag. Pop it into a freezer at a temperature of -18 degrees, where it can be stored for up to 6 months.
If you plan to birth in hospital, you can take your full syringes with you for those early days. It’s best to transport in a cool bag with ice or ice blocks but don’t leave them in there for any longer than 24 hours. Let your midwife know you have them, and she should be able to refrigerate for you. Once defrosted they must still be kept cool and used within 24 hours.
I’ve been confronted with many questions and assumptions over the years around colostrum and milk production. The main thing that has become apparent is a lack of trust in relation to our body and its ability to provide for baby. I often hear ‘my milk hasn’t come in yet’ or ‘my body isn’t producing enough milk’, so as we know this precious first milk is produced in very small quantities, let’s just reassure ourselves here….
Firstly, your colostrum will not run out, and the amount you’re expressing in pregnancy is not determining what you will produce once your baby has arrived. After we birth our baby, the placenta then comes away from the lining of the uterus, which causes the hormone Progesterone to rapidly drop. This sends a message to the breasts to start producing colostrum, which the body instinctively sees as a lifeline for your baby.
Colostrum is delivered in an amount that is perfect for your new baby as they learn to feed. They are not only learning to transition to life outside the womb and getting used to not being with you 24/7, but are learning to rhythmically suck, swallow and breathe.
There really is a lot for our new little ones to deal with!! With a newborns tummy being tiny, the size of a small marble in fact, we should remember that a little of this concentrated formula really does go a long way. With your baby being properly nourished from birth, and milk increasing at a rate to suit their need and growing tummy, your ‘milk coming in’ is just part of a gradual process. If you find your baby wants to feed very frequently and you feel like you can't put them down, it’s certainly not because you’re not producing enough. It’s because they are regulating your milk supply, with frequent feeds encouraging a faster transition to a more mature milk. As the milk volume increases your baby will be satisfied for longer between feeds, so go with it and feed on demand, never leaving your baby for longer than 3 hours in between feeds in the first 5 days.
Your colostrum has been producing for weeks and months in some cases, but no, it’s not stale and isn’t like a bottle of milk that will go off. It’s perfectly your choice if for religious or cultural reasons you discard it, but it’s not necessary to throw it away, for all the reasons above.
It’s not believed that expressing in pregnancy (nipple stimulation) in isolation will bring on labour. Even though it increases oxytocin production, it’s thought that the body needs all its hormones to align for labour to begin. So as breastfeeding and sex also release Oxytocin and are safe in pregnancy, Colostrum harvesting is believed to be too!! However, if you experience any sensation of tightening in the tummy area, which doesn’t go away, let your midwife or your care provider know.
Ultimately, we need to trust our body’s. Perfectly designed for growing and developing a new life and producing a means to keep that new life alive, so I’m pretty confident it’s got milk production right too!
So, my advice in those early days is hold your baby as much as possible, really getting to know each other. Primarily your job is to feed and sleep, so try to forget about anything else you think you need to do. Like all things related to pregnancy, birth, and baby, it’s all about personal choice as to your preferred method of feeding, however, sometimes we need a little more information for that decision to be informed. As a Midwife I will always recommend breastfeeding, for all the reasons above, and especially knowing that our body naturally produces this milk for our newborn babies. However, I also adamantly support a parent’s choice and wholeheartedly agree that ‘fed is best’.
For more information about feeding your baby: