Toward the end of your pregnancy, you might start producing a clear, golden-yellow, or light orange, milky fluid in your breasts. This is called colostrum. Some people refer to it as “first milk” or “liquid gold.”
Colostrum is packed full of nutrients and antibodies that nourish and protect newborn babies in their first few days of life. Your baby will survive on colostrum until your mature milk comes in, which is usually around 3 days after birth.
But, because your body starts making colostrum before your baby is born, it can sometimes be useful to you and baby if you collect — or harvest — it ahead of time.
What is antenatal colostrum harvesting?
Antenatal colostrum harvesting is just a formal way of saying that you express and collect your colostrum before your baby is born.
Colostrum is called “liquid gold” for a reason. Here are some of the reasons why it may be beneficial to harvest.
It might help you produce milk
“People who have had breast surgery, or a history of low milk supply, can benefit from prenatal harvesting of colostrum as it ‘fires up’ the milk ducts and gets colostrum moving through them,” explains Leigh Anne O’Connor, a lactation consultant in New York City.
Doctors or midwives might encourage you to collect colostrum if you had diabetes in pregnancy or if you’ve had a history of diabetes. This is because people with diabetes sometimes need a little more time for their mature milk to come in. Also, babies born to people with diabetes may have hypoglycemia after birth, so they might need extra colostrum feedings to keep their blood sugar levels stable.
It can benefit your baby if you can’t breastfeed right after birth
Some people have medical conditions or need to start taking medications after birth that would make breastfeeding or chestfeeding impossible in the long term. But if you harvest your colostrum, your baby can get some of the benefits of colostrum in the short term, such as increased immunity.
Babies don’t have strong immune systems when they’re born, which is why colostrum can be so beneficial. It’s loaded with antibodies, white blood cells, and other immunity-boosting compounds to keep newborns from getting an infection, illness, or disease.
For example, colostrum contains high levels of secretory immunoglobulin A, which protects babies’ guts by killing off viruses and bacteria.
It teaches you how to hand express
If you intend to breastfeed or chestfeed your baby, it can be helpful to learn how to hand express your milk.
This can help boost your milk supply when your milk first comes in and prevent any supply dips if your newborn has any difficulties learning to latch.
It can also come in handy if you’re ever engorged and don’t have your pump nearby.
It can help supplement breastfeeding if you need it
“It is good to have the colostrum in the event your baby needs supplemental feedings, they can be fed this colostrum,” says O’Connor.
You might need to supplement if:
- Your baby has low blood sugar, shows signs of dehydration, is losing weight too quickly, or has a low birth weight.
- Your baby has a cleft lip or palate, intrauterine growth restriction, or a congenital condition, such as a heart condition or Down syndrome.
- You have twins or triplets, as they’re more likely to be born early and have a low birth weight.
- You have underdeveloped breasts or previous breast surgery.
“Having colostrum available when the baby is born provides the optimal choice if the baby needs supplementation in addition to breastfeeding,” explains Andrea Tran, an RN and lactation consultant who has been working with new moms and babies for over 38 years. “Other options when supplementation is required are human donor milk — which is expensive and may not be available — or infant formula.”
Colostrum is high in protein and other nutrients that are easy for babies to digest when they’re born, making it easy to feed them if they’re struggling with nursing or they’re losing weight.
It could help reduce jaundice
Colostrum is a natural laxative that helps your baby get rid of meconium — their tar-like first poop — in their digestive tract.
Meconium contains bilirubin, so supplementing breastfeeding or chestfeeding with harvested colostrum could be beneficial in
Prior to 37 weeks, it can be difficult or even painful to harvest colostrum because you’re not yet producing enough to collect. It’s generally not recommended that you start harvesting before then.
However, if you’re having a planned cesarean delivery, or it’s likely that your labor will be induced, or if you’re expecting multiples, your healthcare professionals might recommend you start harvesting colostrum earlier.
When not to harvest your colostrum
Your doctor or healthcare professional might not recommend colostrum harvesting if you have a history of premature labor. This is because nipple stimulation can produce oxytocin, which can trigger premature labor in some cases. Have a conversation with your doctor or midwife about colostrum harvesting to make sure it’s safe for your pregnancy.
Before you begin harvesting colostrum, you might want to practice hand expressing. It can be helpful to practice in the bath or shower while you get used to the technique. Colostrum is produced in very small quantities, so using a pump doesn’t work well for collection.
Once you’re ready to harvest, here are the steps to follow:
- Gather a clean, sterile container. Feeding syringes are often a good choice if you can get help collecting the colostrum (it’s often hard to hold the syringe while hand expressing).
- Wash your hands, then apply a warm compress to your breast or chest. Taking a warm shower or bath ahead of time can work, too.
- Gently massage your breast tissue for a minute or two, stroking from the top and sides toward your nipple to encourage the letdown reflex.
- Then, hold your breast tissue between your thumb and the rest of your fingers in a C-shape. Your fingers should be an inch or two beneath your nipple and your thumb the same distance above.
- Gently press all of your fingers toward your chest wall, then squeeze your thumb and fingers together. (Don’t squeeze so hard it hurts) Release and repeat this step until you see colostrum come out of your nipple. You can rotate your fingers in a circle around your areola to stimulate a larger area of your mammary tissue.
- Collect the colostrum with your container without stopping the expression.
- Don’t expect large quantities. It’s common to get only a few drops at a time. Remember it’s called “liquid gold” because every drop is full of healthy nutrients and antibodies!
- Once the flow stops, switch to the other side.
In general, it’s a good idea to express twice a day, morning and night.
You can collect colostrum in the same syringe or container throughout the day. Just store the container in the refrigerator between uses.
This allows you to collect enough colostrum to freeze. “To avoid waste it’s best to store amounts of 1 to 2 milliliters,” Tan explains.
After that, says Tan, “it should be frozen until needed.”
To freeze it, place the syringe into a sterile zip-top bag, label it with the date you expressed, and place it in the freezer.
You can store frozen colostrum for up to 6 months in the freezer, but once you thaw it, it needs to be used within 24 hours.
As a result, it’s a good idea to mention that you have colostrum stores before bringing it to the hospital or birth center. That way, if your birth facility has access to a freezer, they can safely store it for you. Just make sure you keep your frozen colostrum in a cooler with ice during the journey over so it doesn’t thaw. And don’t forget to put your name on it!
If you’re thinking about harvesting your colostrum, it’s a good idea to discuss it with your doctor, midwife, or lactation consultant. They can answer any questions you have — and go over how to hand express.
In addition, says O’Connor, if you’re “concerned about milk supply or other breastfeeding issues, it is good to make contact with a lactation consultant before giving birth.”
If you do harvest colostrum but don’t end up using it, it doesn’t have to go to waste.
“If there is no need to use the colostrum when the baby is born, [you] could donate it to a Human Milk Bank,” says Tan.
Harvesting colostrum before giving birth is usually relatively easy to do once you’ve reached 37 full weeks of pregnancy.
It might be a good idea to collect and store colostrum if you:
- are expecting multiples
- have diabetes
- know from ultrasounds that your baby will be born with certain health conditions
- are concerned about breastfeeding or chestfeeding
Talk with your doctor or midwife if you’re thinking about harvesting your colostrum. They can answer any questions you have and determine if it’s right for your pregnancy. Also, be sure to correctly freeze and store any harvested colostrum.