The production of colostrum – or early breast milk – begins in pregnancy, and some parents are able to express and save a small amount for when their baby is born. This is called harvesting colostrum, and here’s everything you need to know.
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What is colostrum?
Colostrum, produced in low quantities in the first few days postpartum, is rich in immunologic components such as secretory IgA, lactoferrin, leukocytes, as well as developmental factors such as epidermal growth factor. Colostrum also contains relatively low concentrations of lactose, indicating its primary functions to be immunologic and trophic rather than nutritional.
Production of colostrum sometimes begins weeks or months prior to delivery, and some people begin leaking during pregnancy.
Colostrum harvesting just means expressing and saving this colostrum during pregnancy.
When can you harvest colostrum?
Because there are some concerns that expressing milk may trigger pre-term labor in some pregnant women, it’s a good idea to discuss this with your OB or midwife and get their approval first.
Many providers will clear you to harvest colostrum at 37 weeks, but it will depend on your situation and history.
However, if you are leaking colostrum, you can “catch” the milk in a milk catcher like the Elvie Catch at any time (because that’s not providing additional stimulation to your nipples). More on that below.
How do you harvest colostrum?
There are a few different ways that you can do this, but hand expression, using a Haakaa, or using a milk catcher are the most common.
Electric breast pumps, while great for pumping mature milk, may not be as effective for expressing colostrum.
1. Hand expression
Hand expression just means using your hands as a breast pump to remove milk. It’s a very useful skill to have, and trying it out while you’re pregnant came be a great way to practice and learn how to do it.
It can also be one of the more effective ways to harvest colostrum.
Some people find that they are able to best express colostrum using a silicone pump like a Haakaa.
3. Milk catcher
If you’re leaking while you’re pregnant, you may want to try wearing a milk catcher during the day to catch any colostrum you may leak.
Milk catchers go in your bra and work like a breast pad in that they prevent your shirt from getting wet when you leak. But instead of the milk going to waste in the pad, you can save the leaked milk and give it to your baby.
One milk catcher that I like is the Elvie Catch – you can see more of it in the stories below:
After you leak milk, you’d want to store it as soon as you’re able to – you don’t want to keep it at room temperature for more than a few hours.
How do you store colostrum?
After you are able to express some colostrum, you’ll want to freeze it so that your baby can drink it when he or she is born.
(Breast milk can be stored for 3-8 days in the refrigerator, so unless you are having a scheduled c-section/know when your baby is coming, it’s a good idea to freeze it to make sure you’ll be able to use it.)
Parents who did this recommended storing the milk in syringes (like these) – basically just suck whatever you’re able to get up in the syringe.
Then, freeze the syringes in a plastic bag as shown above. (You’ll want to leave a little room in the syringe for the liquid to expand.)
You may want to store syringes with different amounts, such as 1 ml, 3 ml, and 5 ml to avoid wasting colostrum. Once it’s warmed or baby starts drinking from the syringe, it will need to be discarded after 1-2 hours.
Can you bring the colostrum to the hospital?
Yes. When you’re ready to leave for the hospital or birthing center, put some of the syringes (or however you’ve stored the colostrum) in a breast milk cooler with an ice pack.
You’ll want to use the milk within 24 hours of when it finishes thawing.
If you have a lot of colostrum, you may want to call ahead and see if they can store it for you during birth and recovery. Or, if you’ll have people visiting you while you’re there, you can bring a small amount and ask them to bring more by later.
Will doing it affect supply after baby is born?
Pumping prior to birth will not increase milk production for your unborn child or otherwise enhance lactation after birth.
Have you tried harvesting colostrum? Give us all of your tips in the comments, or read more about getting ready for breastfeeding and pumping here.References
- Ballard O, Morrow AL. Human milk composition: nutrients and bioactive factors. Pediatr Clin North Am. 2013;60(1):49-74. doi:10.1016/j.pcl.2012.10.002 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3586783/
- NHS UK. “Leaking from your nipples.” https://www.nhs.uk/pregnancy/related-conditions/common-symptoms/leaking-nipples/