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Colostrum: an Ode to the Harvest

October 9, 2023
Image Credit: Olha Ruskykh

When it comes to breastfeeding, milk is the most commonly mentioned component. However, in addition to breast milk is a substance that can be immensely beneficial to your child’s health and well-being. Recently, talk of this substance has made its way onto major social media platforms, including Instagram and TikTok. So what is this magical liquid, you ask? It’s colostrum.

Colostrum is a nutrient-rich fluid that is produced by mammals during pregnancy, and a short while post-birth. In humans, colostrum is produced in mid-pregnancy (at about 12-18 weeks) and for a few days after giving birth, before milk ‘comes in.’ As such, if you plan on breastfeeding, this substance will be the first thing that your baby ingests after being born.

It’s become apparent that colostrum is valuable in the health and growth of a newborn baby, but what exactly does it do?

  • Encourages a strong immune system due to containment of white blood cells and antibodies
  • Protects your baby from illness causing germs and inflammation by lining the stomach with a fortifying coating
  • Has laxative-like properties
  • Aids in preventing jaundice
  • Provides nutrients perfectly formatted for brain, eyes and heart to grow
  • Contains proteins, salts, fats and vitamins
  • Is easily digestible, though a complete nutritious meal
  • Helps to prevent low blood sugar

So, how is this relevant to you? The bottom line here is that whether you plan to breastfeed or not, there are ways to harvest, extract or express your colostrum so that your infant can indulge in the nutrients and health benefits your body provides.

Though your body will start producing colostrum around the 12-18 week mark of pregnancy, it is recommended to begin extraction of colostrum at the 36-38 week mark. However, it is not necessary to harvest it prior to giving birth, and you may not be advised to do so if there are any possible risks with your pregnancy. The key is to always consult your medical care provider on if and when it would be best to begin this process, as nipple stimulation can result in uterine contraction and you may not be advised to do so if there are any possible risks with your pregnancy. If you are advised to proceed, harvesting colostrum pre-birth may be helpful down the line during those late night cluster feedings, if your child becomes sick one day, or if you happen to be away from your baby for a night. Having a stash of this magical liquid can be sure to provide ease in any uneasy moment post-birth.

The neat but daunting thing about colostrum is that you don’t need a pump to extract it from your breast. In fact, the amount of colostrum that a pregnant woman will produce daily (roughly 1-2 mL), is so minimal, that using a pump will likely result in a loss of some of the colostrum in the hardware of the pump. To express colostrum, it is recommended to use your hands. How does one do this? Let’s dive in:

  1. Before you begin, be sure to wash your hands, and any equipment you may be using.
  2. To start stimulation and flow of colostrum, take a hot shower or bath, or apply a warm compress to your breasts.
  3. Find a comfortable spot in your house; whatever works best for you!
  4. Encourage the flow of colostrum further by massaging your breasts. Start from the base and gently stroke forwards to the nipple.
  5. Place your thumb above your nipple, and the other fingers below, in a ‘C’ shape.
  6. Roll your thumb and index finger toward the nipple slowly and steadily.
  7. Release.
  8. Repeat.
  9. Colostrum should then begin to appear in drops.
  10. Collect in a small syringe.
  11. Rotate your ‘C’ shaped hand around the breast to extract from other areas.

Don’t be discouraged if the first few attempts are unsuccessful, as it may take a few days of practice for drops to appear. When the drops begin to emerge, take pride! Even a little bit of colostrum is the most nutritious thing your baby can ingest. You can attempt to express colostrum from each breast twice in a session, and one to three times daily.

After extracting the colostrum and collecting in a syringe, label and store in a ziplock bag in the freezer. Be sure to label with the day and time you extracted; colostrum can last for 6 months frozen, and 24 hours after thawing!

Whether you choose to breastfeed or formula feed, extract colostrum or not, it is important to be aware of and acknowledge the nutrients that a pregnant body creates, especially those that can aid in the immediate and long-term health of your baby. Harvesting colostrum can be a meaningful way for you to explore and learn about your breasts and how they excrete milk before the little one arrives; it could also be a way for you to prepare for post-birth, when you may not have as much time on your hands as you thought you might. Having colostrum stocked and ready is one way to be prepared for anything that may come your way. So, follow the tiktok trends and the moms along with them, and harvest your colostrum!

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