Colostrum harvesting: your questions answered
Short on time? Then the key things to know are:
Colostrum is the first milk you produce and helps to kickstart your baby’s immune system
Expressing colostrum is best done by hand by compressing and releasing your fingers and thumb around the nipple
You should express antenatal colostrum into a syringe, or onto a teaspoon when baby is born
Colostrum can help you baby’s ability to breastfeed and is medically beneficial for mothers with high blood pressure or diabetes
Colostrum is nature’s liquid gold - and not just because of its golden yellow colouring. Nature has evolved this first baby food to set up your newborn for life on the ‘outside’.
But what actually is colostrum milk? And what are the benefits? Here our lactation experts answer your common questions and share how to harvest colostrum.
What is colostrum milk?
Colostrum is a thick, gloopy, sticky milk - the first you produce when starting to breastfeed - and is jam-packed with immunity and positive bacteria that help to kickstart your baby’s virgin gut and immature immune system.
It is made in tiny quantities but it goes a long way, helping your little one adjust to being born. It’s laxative effect even helps your baby pass their first meconium poo!
Colostrum harvesting - preparing for your baby’s arrival
Harvesting colostrum before your baby is born is a great way to store up breast milk and boost your confidence as you prepare to breastfeed (particularly for first time mothers).
Your body starts to prepare colostrum early on in your pregnancy and you can start harvesting from week 36. It’s an excellent way of practicing antenatal colostrum harvesting.
Does colostrum harvesting induce labour?
There are many urban myths about whether hand expressing induces labour, however evidence shows this is highly unlikely. If it was that easy, we wouldn’t need to induce so many pregnancies!
How to express colostrum milk
Hand expressing is the best way of obtaining colostrum. Colostrum harvesting with a pump is not recommended as most of the precious liquid will stick to it and be wasted.
It’s important to be gentle and be patient. This is a new skill and will take practice, but becomes quicker and easier with time. You should also be in a relaxed state. Practicing in the bath or shower can be helpful.
- Start by washing your hands and applying a warm compress to your breast
- Find a comfortable position that works for you - seated and leaning slightly forward is common
- Gently massage your breast and stroke towards your nipple to encourage the flow of colostrum
- Cup the breast in a ‘C’ shape with your thumb above the nipple and first few fingers below
- Compress and release, repeating the process rhythmically
It may be helpful to watch this video.
You can do as much or as little colostrum harvesting as you’d like as your colostrum won’t run out, your body just keeps making more in very small quantities.
How to store colostrum milk
Antenatally, you can use a 1ml syringe to draw up colostrum from a teaspoon or directly from the nipple ready for storage. When your baby arrives, this milk can be given while your baby sucks on your finger. You can ask your NHS midwife for syringes.
When baby is born, the World Health Organisation suggests expressing onto a teaspoon. These can be kept clean - with hot, soapy water and then sterilised under boiling water - and used easily to scoop up drops of colostrum from the nipple.
So, the only colostrum harvesting kit you may need is:
- Your clean hands
- A clean teaspoon
- New 1ml syringes for storage
- A warm cloth
Colostrum should be stored the same as regular breast milk, as covered in the NHS guidelines.
The benefits of colostrum harvesting
Harvesting colostrum is incredibly beneficial from the moment your baby is born.
If your newborn is sleepy or unwell when they arrive, hand expressing can be a brilliant skill and way to help them feed. You can hand express your colostrum directly onto a teaspoon and give it to them directly. Doing so at this very early stage may help to encourage a baby’s ability to breastfeed.
Hand-expressing can also be really helpful in future circumstances, such as when breasts become fuller as mature milk arrives, or if you take a longer break between feeds. It’s like a foundation skill for your breastfeeding ‘career’!
Colostrum harvesting is excellent for those having multiple babies and more mouths to feed or a planned caesarean birth which may delay milk ‘coming in’. This is also the case for women who have concerns about their ability to make milk due to previous breast surgeries.
It is also medically beneficial for women with high blood pressure or with diabetes, whose babies may experience difficulty maintaining their blood sugar levels.
Harvesting colostrum – will I have enough milk for my baby?
It can feel hard to believe and trust that our bodies will have and make enough milk for our babies. But evidence clearly shows that most women make more than is needed, including mothers of twins or triplets.
Evolution has been working very hard for a very long time to ensure the survival of our babies. Scientists believe that every single ingredient in our colostrum and breastmilk is present for a vital reason. We’re still learning what all those ingredients and reasons are!
What we do know is that each woman’s breast milk contains all the same key nutrient ingredients. However, it is also completely unique, with your own special ‘recipe’ of antibodies, prebiotics and immune factors.
When does colostrum become mature milk?
The production of mature milk is automatically triggered by the delivery of the placenta after a baby arrives. This happens for all births – vaginal or caesarean section.
New mothers usually notice a change in their breasts and a colour change to their breast milk as it becomes paler yellow to white around days 3-5 postnatally. The process can happen sooner for mothers who have given birth before or if a new baby is offered the breast as frequently as possible.
Remember to be proud of every single drop of colostrum that you’re able to give your baby. Being familiar and practiced with hand-expressing colostrum can make a huge difference and do a lot to boost your confidence as a new mother.
Looking for support with colostrum harvesting or breastfeeding? Book a consultation with our lactation experts who can provide specialist advice and help with any concerns.
Sharon, Naytal Lead Lactation Consultant
Sharon has been supporting women and their families as an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant for over 10 years, inspired by the care she received with her own three children.