With so much advice flying around, it can be difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff. Colostrum harvesting is one of the topics I would advise taking notice of.
But what is colostrum harvesting and why do people do it? Colostrum harvesting is collecting a store of the first milk your body produces for your newborn before your baby arrives. I believe it provides a really great start to breastfeeding and can help to relieve anxiety in the first few days following delivery.
What exactly is colostrum harvesting?
Colostrum is the milk your body starts producing in late pregnancy ready for when your baby is born. Packed with nutrients, antibodies and antioxidants, it is the perfect first food for your newborn and plays an important part in building their immune system. Colostrum is thicker and more yellow than normal breast milk and is produced in smaller quantities.
Antenatal colostrum harvesting is the process of stimulating the mammary glands within the breast during pregnancy to produce secretions of this first milk so it can be collected and stored ready for your little one’s arrival. The colostrum is collected by hand expressing and can then be frozen so you have a ready supply if you need it.
Why would you harvest colostrum?
New mums often worry they might not be producing enough milk for their baby and, while newborns only need very small amounts of colostrum, it can be reassuring to know there is a back-up supply which can be used if needed.
Having refrigerated or frozen colostrum available is particularly useful if you need to be separated from your baby in those first few days after delivery. This might be because you are unwell yourself or it could be because your baby requires special care.
If you are unable to carry out those first few breastfeeds in person, having some refrigerated or frozen colostrum in syringes will mean your baby can still benefit from this precious first milk, which is often referred to as liquid gold.
Your midwife or doctor may recommend colostrum harvesting if you have diabetes, have a high BMI, are expecting twins or triplets, are booked in for an elective c-section or you are taking beta blockers to control high blood pressure. Women who have had breast surgery or who have limited breast development, known as hypoplasia may also be told to collect colostrum during pregnancy if they can.
What are the benefits of harvesting colostrum?
Colostrum harvesting can also be very beneficial for babies who are likely to experience problems breastfeeding or who might struggle to maintain their blood sugar levels. This could be because your baby has Down’s Syndrome, a heart condition or a cleft lip or palate or it could simply be because your newborn is bigger or smaller than their gestational age.
Colostrum is excellent at helping to stabilise your baby’s blood sugar levels after birth and contains white blood cells which will help protect your newborn from infection. Up to two thirds of colostrum is made up of white blood cells and they produce antibodies which can neutralise bacteria and viruses. This first breast milk is especially good at protecting your newborn’s immature gut from diarrhoea and tummy bugs.
Hand-expressing colostrum will also help you to understand your breast anatomy and, in turn, aid you in guiding your baby onto the breast. Being able to express a little milk onto the breast can encourage your baby to feed so practicing hand expressing during pregnancy can make those first few breastfeeds an easier experience.
When should you start harvesting colostrum?
Your body starts producing colostrum in the second trimester, usually between 12 and 18 weeks but you do not need to start thinking about expressing it at such an early stage. You can start colostrum harvesting from 36-37 weeks of pregnancy but it is generally not advised to begin before this point. It’s always best to speak to your midwife to see when they would advise it is best for you personally to start harvesting colostrum.
You can express up to three times a day but it is usually best to build up gradually. Start hand expressing once a day for a few minutes and then you can work up to collecting colostrum three times a day as you get closer to your due date.
How do you collect colostrum?
You will need to collect colostrum through hand expressing – do not try to use an electric or manual breast pump while you are pregnant.
When you are ready to harvest colostrum, you should:
- Get relaxed – you will struggle if you are not comfy
- Massage your breasts to feel where the milk ducts are
- Gently but firmly squeeze the breast repeatedly. Your hand should be in a c-shape around your nipple. Use your thumb and index finger to gently squeeze and try to establish a rhythm
- Be patient and avoid pulling at the breast tissue – it may take a few attempts to stimulate production
- Use a 1ml syringe to collect any drops by drawing back the plunger over the liquid
- Once the drops have slowed, rotate your hand around the breast to make sure you have expressed milk from all the way around your breast – visualise a clock with your fingers being at 12-6 then move to 1-7, 2-8, etc.
- Once finished, label the syringes and store in either the fridge or freezer
- Go at a pace that is comfortable for you and your body.
Warmth can help when hand expressing so you could try collecting colostrum while you are in the bath or use a warm compress to massage your breasts before you begin.
If you are being induced, store any expressed milk in the fridge for 2-3 days beforehand and then collect once your baby has arrived – otherwise you may not be able to use it.
Leave your stock at home and ask your birth partner to collect it once your baby is here. Your baby may latch on straight away and then you can save your harvest for later.
How much colostrum should I collect before birth?
Your body only produces colostrum in small quantities so don’t be alarmed if you don’t feel you are collecting much. This sticky fluid, which the body produces from the second trimester until a few days following the arrival of your baby, is packed full of goodness and is very calorie-rich so a little really does go a long way.
One of the reasons colostrum is nicknamed liquid gold is because it is extremely valuable to your baby, even in small quantities. It is much thicker than mature milk which makes it more challenging to express so don’t panic if you find hand-expressing tricky.
Each time you express, you may only collect a few drops but every millilitre of colostrum is important and will deliver vital nutrients to your baby. With colostrum, it is definitely a case of quality over quantity!
It is also normal not to produce any colostrum before your baby arrives so don’t worry if this is the case for you as it is not a reflection on your future breast milk supply.
Is harvesting colostrum painful?
Hand expressing to collect colostrum should not be painful but you might find the process quite tedious. If your breasts are very tender, you may find antenatal colostrum harvesting uncomfortable but making sure you are as relaxed as possible before you begin will help.
Learn more about colostrum harvesting in our infant feeding class
Get ready for the arrival of your baby and learn more about colostrum harvesting by attending our Infant Feeding antenatal class.
During this class, we cover everything you need to know about infant feeding from colostrum harvesting to breastfeeding and formula feeding. After joining this antenatal class, you will confidently know which feeding option is best for you and you’ll be ready to master the practical side of feeding with all of our tips, tricks and advice!