Collecting Colostrum

By NCT Doula Beverley Hinton

Colostrum is the first, concentrated milk that your baby will drink after birth. It is full of nutrients and disease-fighting antibodies — it provides everything that your baby needs in the early days after birth, including beneficial bacteria. These are taken from the mother’s gut and delivered to the baby’s digestive tract, changing it from a sterile environment to one colonised by good bacteria.

Many people do not realise that the breasts actually start producing this first milk midway through pregnancy at about 16-22 weeks. They will continue to make colostrum until about 2-5 days after birth when the mature milk will ‘come in’.

As colostrum is made during pregnancy, it is possible to begin to hand express, collect and store colostrum before the baby is born. This is sometimes called colostrum harvesting. Learning to express colostrum during pregnancy is a useful skill for all mothers. There are also benefits to saving expressed colostrum.

I always suggest that the women I work with have a go at hand expressing colostrum before the baby comes. For some women, hand expression comes easily, and they manage to fill a 1ml syringe quickly, for others it takes more time to get used to and they might collect about 0.3ml of colostrum over a 12-hour period. Other mothers practice the technique, but do not manage to collect any colostrum. The most important thing is that you are practicing and getting used to the technique of hand expression. It is vital to remember that the amount of colostrum you collect is in no way related to your ability to make milk or breastfeed your baby.  There is colostrum in there and it will be available to your baby after birth whether you have managed to collect any or not and whether you have hand expressed or not. I always suggest that the aim be to practice hand expression, and the extra bonus be to collect some colostrum!

Some examples of when practicing hand expression have been useful are:-

  • Gestational Diabetes – “I had gestational diabetes and I knew it was going to be important for my baby to feed frequently after birth to make sure he maintained his blood glucose level. He didn’t latch onto my breast in the first two hours and started to fall asleep. I asked the midwife for a syringe and managed to hand express 1ml of colostrum, which I then fed to him. He fell asleep for a while and I didn’t need to worry that he hadn’t been able to latch. I was glad I practiced as before the birth I had only managed to collect 0.6ml in total, so knowing what to do, and seeing so much more colostrum than I was used to, was amazing”.
  • Caesarean Section – “My baby was born at 37 weeks by caesarean section as there were worries about his health. As soon as I found out that this was the plan, I started to practice my hand expression as I knew that after a caesarean my milk might not come in until later and also as he was early he might find it harder to latch. I practiced for a few days and started to be able to collect more and more. Overall, I managed to collect 15ml of colostrum in 1ml syringes. This was really useful as when he was born, he did struggle to latch, so I was able to use these colostrum supplies, and use the hand expression technique I had practiced at home to collect more colostrum.”
  • Trouble latching – “When my baby was born, he went straight into skin to skin and stayed there for nearly 3 hours. He crawled to the breast and showed all the behaviours I had learnt about how they find and latch to the breast. He eventually got to the nipple, but he didn’t seem to be able to latch on. He kept on putting the nipple in his mouth and then falling off. We weren’t sure why, and I immediately worried that he had a tongue tie. Luckily, I had practiced hand expression at home. As I was expecting to have a natural water birth and had no pregnancy complications, I hadn’t collected any colostrum, but I managed to use the technique to collect some in the hospital. We started feeding him this colostrum with a syringe, and later went on to finger feeding and cup feeding. We had lots of visits from the breastfeeding specialist at the hospital. He didn’t have a tongue tie; it was just that the forceps birth had given him a sore head and made him find it hard to latch. After 8 days he eventually latched on and is now fully breastfed.”

If you are interested in finding out more about hand expression, and antenatal collection of colostrum, then why not ask your midwife. You can also find information at:-

https://www.laleche.org.uk/antenatal-expression-of-colostrum/

https://kellymom.com/bf/pumpingmoms/pumping/hand-expression/

https://www.gestationaldiabetes.co.uk/colostrum-harvesting/