Digging for Gold: Colostrum Harvesting 101

By Lindsey Johnson
Mother breastfeeding colostrum

When a mother gives birth, her breasts excrete a thick, yellowish- white substance called colostrum. Also known as “liquid gold,” it serves as the baby’s first meal. During pregnancy, the body develops colostrum and starts excreting it in the third trimester. A breastfeeding baby will feast on colostrum the first few days after birth until the mother’s milk fully comes in.

What is Colostrum?

According to the Cleveland Clinic, colostrum is the first substance formed in the mammary glands, and it’s packed with protein, vitamins, minerals and antibodies. Its luxurious nickname comes from both the color and the strong benefit it provides for a baby’s immature immune system. When a baby breastfeeds, they get several days of it immediately after birth until the mother’s regular milk comes in. Even if long-term breastfeeding is not an option, any opportunity to reap the benefits of this substance can help your baby build a strong immune system.

What is Colostrum Harvesting?

Because colostrum is such a powerful natural substance, some mothers choose to collect or “harvest” it during their third trimester. This is when they are able to manually express it. They can then build up a reserve for additional feedings for their baby after birth.

Why Harvest?

There are many reasons an expectant mother may wish to harvest colostrum before birth. In addition to the benefits of extra doses of high-nutrient immunity boost, there are many other circumstances that might make it worthwhile. Some mothers have difficulty breastfeeding, particularly in the early stages, and having colostrum on hand will help ensure the baby still has nutrition available. It can also help the mother produce milk in the event she has a low supply. Colostrum harvesting can also teach the mother how to hand express milk, which may be necessary at times.

Healthline notes that colostrum is a natural laxative that helps babies excrete meconium (their first tarry-like poop). Meconium is high in bilirubin, a substance that can cause jaundice when the levels get too high. Colostrum helps prevent and reduce jaundice by moving the meconium through the digestive tract.

Your healthcare provider may also recommend harvesting it if you have a history of diabetes or gestational diabetes. Sometimes, this can make it slower than usual for a mother’s milk to come in and also a possibility of a hypoglycemic baby at birth.

The extra colostrum supplementation may also be beneficial if a mother has complications after birth and is unable to breastfeed. According to the Le Leche League International (LLLI), a mother’s previous breast surgery or underdeveloped breasts may be another reason a provider would recommend harvesting. A baby born with Down syndrome or other congenital conditions, such as a heart condition, intrauterine growth restriction, cleft lip or palate, may all be reasons to stock up after colostrum. Other reasons a baby may need supplementation after birth include having a low birth weight baby, dehydration, low blood sugar, baby losing weight too quickly, or having twins or triplets.

When and How is it Done?

You can usually start harvesting colostrum around 37 weeks gestation, according to Healthline. Expectant mothers can express colostrum manually. Colostrum typically comes out in small amounts, sometimes only a few drops at a time, especially prior to birth. If an expectant mother has someone to assist in colostrum harvesting, it may be easiest to express colostrum into a syringe so the baby can easily receive supplementation. Healthline recommends saving in syringes in quantities of no more than one to two millimeters to avoid waste at time of dispensation.

Colostrum expressed prior to birth may be frozen for up to six months. When it is thawed, it is recommended to be consumed within 24 hours.

If you are interested in harvesting colostrum, consult your healthcare provider for guidance on whether it is appropriate for you. Your provider can also demonstrate the proper technique and help determine how often to collect. Whether or not you breastfeed long-term after birth, the colostrum supplementation may benefit your baby.

Consult your healthcare provider prior to colostrum harvesting. It may be contraindicated in some cases, particularly with a history of premature labor.

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