Breastfeeding

mother nursing a newborn baby in article about colostrum harvesting
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Everything You Need To Know About Colostrum Harvesting

When to start, how to do it, and why it matters.

If breastfeeding is the right journey for you and your baby, then you might be familiar with the term “colostrum”. There’s a reason doctors, nurses, and lactation consultants refer to it as liquid gold: Colostrum is packed with nutrients, antibodies, and nourishment to give your baby a great start. It’s the very first milk your body produces, and it’s so incredibly beneficial to newborn babies that many women are eager to learn how to harvest colostrum so they can take advantage of it as much as possible.

That said, colostrum is a bit different from regular breast milk. “I like to think of colostrum like a protein bar, a small amount of food that keeps you full for a few hours,” explains Sarah Schooler, International Board-Certified Lactation Consultant and lead consultant at Thrive Lactation Center. “The benefits of colostrum are amazing for babies. It is full of immune properties and disease -fighting cells that act as an immunization against germs infants are exposed to outside of the womb.”

Colostrum production starts early — typically between 16 and 22 weeks of pregnancy — and it is thicker in consistency and has a more yellow or golden tone to it than the regular breast milk your body will produce after the baby is born. Generally, you won’t produce a ton of colostrum — we’re talking teaspoons, here — but a little goes a long way.

Harvesting colostrum is something that anyone can do, but it can be particularly helpful in certain instances, for example if you think that your baby may begin their breastfeeding journey in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU), if you’re having twins, or if your baby will be born with a cleft palate.

How to collect colostrum

Because it comes in earlier than regular breast milk, you may be able to start collecting and harvesting colostrum it before your little one arrives. However, you should wait until you’re at least 37 weeks pregnant to try harvesting colostrum and you should get your doctor’s approval before you begin, Melanie Silverman, MS, RD, International Board-Certified Lactation Consultant and President of Pacify Health, tells Romper.

While you might assume you should use a breast pump to collect colostrum, Schooler says expressing it by hand it is the easiest and most efficient option. “Because colostrum is so thick, like honey or maple syrup, collection with a breast pump can be challenging. For many women, their body’s response to the breast pump is not as effective the first few times they use it. Mothers can use a syringe, small cup, or bowl to collect colostrum in.”

Colostrum harvesting: Pros and cons

There are plenty of positive things about harvesting colostrum, but it’s not all good. Before you start, you be aware of both the pros and cons. Here are a few reasons you might want to try it:

  • It can be helpful if your baby is born with a medical condition. Silverman notes that collecting colostrum can be great if your little one is born with a condition like a cleft lip or palate, Down syndrome, intrauterine growth restriction, cardiac complications, or if you have diabetes.
  • It helps promote milk production. “Harvesting colostrum can activate the milk ducts and get the colostrum moving and be more readily available,” Silverman notes. This might make it easier to nurse when the time comes.
  • Harvesting colostrum helps you master hand expressing. Silverman also notes that harvesting colostrum through hand expression allows you to master the technique. “It can come in handy when you need to express milk in a hurry,” she says.
  • It sets you up with a stash right away. Collecting colostrum before baby is even here means they can drink it pretty much immediately, no matter what may be going on after delivery. “A mother can have a small stash of milk should her baby have extra needs for milk immediately after delivery,” Schooler says. “For example, the infant has low blood sugar or needs to go to the NICU.”

And here are a few things to watch out for if you’re trying to harvest colostrum:

  • It can feel discouraging. You’re not guaranteed to collect a lot of colostrum before giving birth and sometimes you might struggle to get any at all. “It can be discouraging if you don’t see any colostrum, or painful if you are hand expressing for too long,” Silverman says.
  • It may induce labor. “The biggest con of harvesting is that nipple stimulation during pregnancy has been associated with inducing labor,” Schooler warns. That’s why you should always speak with your OB-GYN or midwife before you try. And if you begin to experience contractions while hand-expressing, stop immediately and call your doctor.
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When do you start leaking colostrum?

There’s no set time that you’ll start leaking colostrum when you’re pregnant. In fact, some people never do, and whether or not you leak doesn’t mean anything about your ability to breastfeed. “Some women begin leaking colostrum around 20 weeks, others never leak colostrum,” Schooler says. Whether you leak or not means nothing about what your breastfeeding journey will be like. “Leaking colostrum during pregnancy is not an indicator of how full a woman’s milk supply will be,” Schooler notes.

Does leaking colostrum mean labor is close?

If you notice colostrum leaking from your nipples, you might take it as a hopeful sign that delivery is just around the corner. However, while it can sometimes mean labor is near, don’t grab your hospital bag quite yet.

“During pregnancy, hormones signal the breasts to hold the milk in,” Schooler explains to Romper. “Once the placenta separates after delivery, these hormones shift and signal the breasts to increase the flow of colostrum. Many women do experience an increase in leaking of colostrum as they near delivery. But leaking of colostrum alone is not a predictor that labor is near.”

Signs of labor typically include strong and regular contractions, pain, in the lower back, bloody mucus discharge, or your water breaking. Those are the signs to watch out for, Silverman notes, not leaked colostrum.

When does colostrum come in?

While production of colostrum begins during pregnancy, it is possible you may not be able to express it until after you deliver. “On average, women have colostrum until day 3-5 after birth,” Schooler says. “Mothers of premature infants can have colostrum longer than five days.” You’ll more than likely be able to express or nurse colostrum immediately after delivery, as you’re waiting for your breast milk to flow.

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What does colostrum look like?

Colostrum is often described as thick and yellow or gold in color. Generally it’s less white and milky looking than the breast milk that comes in a few days after your baby is born. However, Silverman notes, “Colostrum can be many different colors. It can be clear, creamy, white, yellow or even orange.” Don’t be surprised if your colostrum doesn’t look exactly the way you picture it.

How to hand express colostrum

If you’ve never hand-expressed milk before, you might feel a bit intimidated, but you’ll get the hang of it pretty quickly. If a lactation consultant is available to you, they can help show you how to do it in person. The basics are pretty, well, basic:

  • Grab a clean, sterile container.
  • Wash your hands with soap and water.
  • Apply warm compresses and massage your breasts to soften them before you hand express.
  • Hold your breast between your thumb and the rest of your fingers in a C-shape position.
  • Gently press your fingers towards your chest wall and then compress your thumb and fingers together. You may have to do this a few times to see the colostrum surface.
  • Collect the colostrum with the sterile container.
  • Be patient. This may take time. If you don’t see any colostrum, take a break from trying to hand express.
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How long does colostrum last?

The rules for storing colostrum are the same as those for storing breast milk. Colostrum can be stored for four hours on the countertop, four days in the refrigerator, and six months in the freezer, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

When learning how to harvest colostrum, be patient and try not to be too hard on yourself. Even if you barely get anything before your baby is born, you have a great chance of getting it after delivery and that’s still just as beneficial. Even a little colostrum is better than none and, while harvesting is a great option, it’s not essential.

Sources interviewed:

Sarah Schooler, MSN, RN, International Board-Certified Lactation Consultant and lead consultant at Thrive Lactation Center

Melanie Silverman, MS, RD, International Board-Certified Lactation Consultant and President of Pacify Health