Harvesting your colostrum — the thick, yellowish breast milk expressed just before and after delivery — is a great way to protect your infant in the event they have feeding problems right after birth or come early.
Here we look at the benefits of harvesting colostrum, how to do it before the baby comes, and how to store it safely.
What Is Colostrum?
Colostrum is a highly concentrated breast milk expressed in the first 2-5 days after delivery that has a lifelong impact on your newborn. It’s a superfood rich in white cells and antibodies like slgA that line the baby’s gut and respiratory system, protecting them against illnesses, among other benefits:
Nutrition - In addition to building the baby’s immune system, colostrum offers crucial nutrition. Carotenoids (an antioxidant) and vitamin A is what makes colostrum a yellowish color, important for baby’s vision, skin, and immune system. Colostrum has a higher concentration of protein, minerals, and fat-soluble vitamins than later milk — perfect for your newborn’s tiny tummy.
Gut preparation - Colostrum is the first substance an infant should ingest, for it also prepares their gut to digest the nutrients in mature milk.
Transition - Studies show that the odor of colostrum is similar to the amniotic fluid your baby has been swallowing and excreting in utero and is thus ideal to help them transition to the world outside the womb [*].
Jaundice prevention - Colostrum is also a natural laxative for your newborn which helps them to pass meconium, the black stool built up in the womb, thereby preventing jaundice.
What Is Colostrum Harvesting?
Colostrum harvesting is a method for encouraging your breasts to express colostrum in the final weeks of pregnancy and saving it in sterile containers in case your newborn infant cannot get it from your breasts immediately after birth.
Why Collect Colostrum?
The benefits of breastfeeding have been well documented, but the studies on the maternal and infant outcomes of antenatal milk expression vary widely in their targets, hypotheses, and objectives [*].
That said, even if you don’t plan to breastfeed — or for whatever reason, find that you cannot breastfeed timely — your baby can benefit from your harvested colostrum in the first few days after delivery to bridge the gap.
These are a few of the reasons mothers collect colostrum before delivery:
1. Maternal Separation
Colostrum is vastly superior to formula. In the event you or your baby need medical care and are separated after birth, the harvested colostrum can be used instead of formula [*].
If you are using a surrogate and the baby will be separated from the surrogate mother, having the colostrum ahead of time would be beneficial.
2. Maternal Diabetes
Infants of mothers who have diabetes during pregnancy are at increased risk of hypoglycemia and other morbidities in the first 24 hours of life that may require more frequent feeding.
Studies have also shown that women with diabetes are less likely to breastfeed, perhaps due to the fact that the onset of milk production (stage II lactogenesis) may be delayed by 24 hours or more compared to women who do not have diabetes [*].
3. Insufficient or Delayed Milk Production
Other factors that may cause delays in stage II lactogenesis include obesity, advanced maternal age, and larger infant birth weight. Obese women and their babies are the most likely to benefit from a longer duration of breastfeeding but studies show they are the least likely to do so [*].
Antenatal milk expression can also help offset suboptimal breastfeeding outcomes associated with late-onset preeclampsia or severe gestational hypertension [*]. Women with polycystic ovarian disease and those who have had low milk supply in past pregnancies may also be advised to harvest colostrum, as well as women having twins or triplets.
4. Congenital Issue
A cleft lip or palate, Down’s syndrome, heart condition, small for gestational age, or other issue that makes it difficult for the baby to suckle may be offset by harvested colostrum.
5. Breast Anomaly
If you’ve had breast surgery in the past or have breast hypoplasia (breasts not fully developed), harvesting colostrum may be recommended.
6. Breastfeeding Success
Antenatal breast milk expression (ABME) has been shown to make women more comfortable with breastfeeding — and more successful — whether the colostrum is collected or not.
In one study, 89% of women who had practiced ABME established full lactation within 6 hours of delivery, while in the control group that had not practiced ABME, only 72% established full lactation [*].
Another similar study found that 94.4% of women who practiced ABME daily after 37 weeks found their milk flowing within an hour of initiation, while the control group had a 70% success rate [*].
These are significant outcomes because in the initial 2-3 days of lactation, many mothers who encounter even a trivial problem in breastfeeding worry that their baby will be hungry and to mitigate this, start top feeding with bottles. The lack of stimulation from the infant can lead to less milk production.
ABME has been shown to reduce breastfeeding failures, and this is true whether or not the colostrum is collected [*]. The colostrum is an added benefit in the event of an unforeseen problem and may help the baby get the energy it needs to breastfeed in some scenarios.
When Can You Start Collecting Colostrum?
Experts say you shouldn’t collect colostrum until week 36 or 37 of your pregnancy, but always check with your care team. If you’re having a planned c-section or know you will be induced, your doctor or midwife may suggest you start earlier.
There are some women who are advised not to harvest colostrum because they have:
A history of premature labor.
Have a cervical suture to prevent preterm labor or cervical incompetence.
Have had pregnancy issues such as contractions, vaginal bleeding, or placenta previa.
If you experience contractions while expressing colostrum, stop and contact your care team.
How to Collect Colostrum
It may take a little practice to get the hang of collecting colostrum and keep in mind that even a drop or two can make a big difference to your infant, whose stomach is the size of a marble at birth.
You don’t want to use a breast pump for collecting colostrum as the bulk of what you collect will stick to the pump. It’s also a good idea to learn how to hand-express milk in the event your breasts become engorged and you don’t have a breast pump handy.
Set aside 30 minutes of relaxing, uninterrupted time twice a day.
Wash your hands. You may want to trim your nails as well.
Get your collection kit ready: A sterilized syringe and a larger sterilized cup if needed. (Dedicated kits are widely available; Your infant can be fed directly from the syringe.)
Apply a warm washcloth to your breast or take a warm shower or bath beforehand to stimulate milk flow.
Position yourself somewhere you feel cozy and comfortable and won’t be interrupted.
Gently massage your breast for 1-2 minutes, going from the top down to the areola. You may feel a tingling sensation from the letdown reflex, which triggers the release of oxytocin. Visualizing breastfeeding your baby can also help stimulate milk flow.
Cup your breast in your hand, making a C shape around your breast, with your thumb on top.
Ease your hand closer to the areola around the nipple, and locate the slight ridge under the skin there. Gently squeeze and release in a rhythmic pattern. Don’t slide your fingers, keep them in place.
As droplets of colostrum collect at the nipple, collect them in the syringe with your other hand. If pulling the syringe plunger back with one hand isn’t possible, get a partner to help you. Alternatively, you can collect the colostrum in a sterile cup and then pull it into the syringe.
Circle your hand around your breast like a clock face, applying the same gentle squeeze and release motion to get the milk flowing. Repeat this twice on each breast, morning and evening.
You may want to watch an instructional video before proceeding. There are plenty of these on YouTube. Note that colostrum is sticky and may contain faint traces of blood. This is normal.
How to Store Colostrum
It’s easy to store your colostrum safely.
Even if you use a cup to collect, store your colostrum in a sterile syringe made for this purpose, as baby can be fed right from it. The same syringe can be used for one day but be sure to put it in the refrigerator in between sessions.
At the end of the day, label the syringe with your name and the date, cap it, and freeze it in a ziploc bag or sterilized tupperware container. It’s best to store amounts of 1-2 ml in each syringe to avoid wasting it. Your baby will only need about an ounce (30 ml) of colostrum a day in the first few days after birth.
Colostrum has a shelf life of at least 3 months in the freezer. If you know you’ll use your colostrum in the next day or two, you can store it in the fridge, where it can last 2-3 days. After that, you’ll need to freeze it.
Colostrum can be defrosted under warm running water or at room temperature. Once defrosted, it can be kept in the refrigerator for up to 24 hours.
Give your care team a heads-up that you will be bringing colostrum with you to the hospital. Pack your frozen colostrum in a cooler when you go and give it to your midwife or care team for storage there. You don’t need to bring all of it: 5-40 ml should be enough. If it’s not used at the hospital, be sure to take it back home with you.
Colostrum Harvesting FAQ
Can colostrum harvesting bring on labor?
Colostrum harvesting does stimulate the release of oxytocin, from the nipple stimulation. So does sex during pregnancy. Oxytocin can trigger contractions or premature labor, but colostrum can also benefit those at risk for premature birth. Talk to your care team to be sure it’s okay to harvest your colostrum.
What can I do with unused colostrum?
Donate it to a human milk bank.
Can you run out of colostrum before the baby is born?
No — harvesting colostrum antenatally won’t affect the amount of colostrum you have after the baby is born.
How long can I produce colostrum after my baby is born?
Colostrum is the first phase of milk production and typically lasts 2-5 days. Small amounts of colostrum may appear in your milk for a few weeks after delivery. After colostrum, your breasts produce transitional milk for 4-14 days. Mature milk is the last phase of milk production; It lasts from about 2 weeks after delivery until you stop nursing.
How is colostrum different from breast milk?
Milk changes dynamically over time, in response to an infant’s needs and environmental factors, according to a 2022 MIT study that examined breast milk from 3 days to 2 years after delivery [*]. Colostrum is filled with immunoglobins to bolster baby’s immune system, and it has twice as much protein and four times as much zinc as mature milk. It’s also lower in fat and sugar to make it easier for baby to digest, and it tends to be a little thicker and yellower.
Why am I struggling to harvest colostrum?
It may take a little practice to harvest colostrum, but experts say doing it twice a day (morning and night) will encourage the milk to flow. It’s better to do it more frequently than trying to get more of it just once a day or sporadically. That said, it’s ultimately the delivery of the placenta that triggers the drop in progesterone needed to produce milk in quantity. If you can’t get any colostrum at 37 weeks, that doesn’t mean it won’t come after baby is born.
Save Milk and Cord Blood
Every parent wants to see their infant brought into the world with every advantage possible. Harvesting colostrum is one way to provide a layer of insurance to safeguard baby’s health, and cord blood is another.
Cord blood and tissue contain stem cells that have been used in more than 80 FDA-approved treatments for heritable blood disorders, certain cancers, metabolic disorders, and immune disorders.
The Bottom Line
Colostrum is sometimes called “liquid gold” for the brilliant way it nourishes and protects your baby. If it’s safe for you to harvest, doing so can provide a layer of protection when your baby needs it most.
Similarly, cord blood and tissue banked with MiracleCord will be ready for you should your baby or family ever need it.