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5 Benefits of Colostrum Harvesting: How collecting colostrum in pregnancy can help you and your baby

Pregnant woman and colostrum sign

Colostrum Harvesting has become quite a ‘thing’ since I had my baby in 2010. Most NHS trusts have fact sheets on colostrum harvesting, and midwives generally recommend to women that they harvest their colostrum. I often hear women I work with in my doula and pregnancy yoga work talking about it - “when should I do it?” “What if I can’t get any colostrum from my breast?” “Do I really need to do it?” For some it can induce anxiety and worry in ‘trying’ to collect colostrum, for others it can be a positive experience of exploring their new body and breastfeeding. 


Here I’ll explore some of the benefits of colostrum harvesting, how you can get it off to a good start and reassure you that it’s also OK if it’s not something for you. 



So what’s colostrum? 

Colostrum is the very first milk that is produced in your body for your baby. It is thick, more golden in colour and absolutely packed with good stuff for your baby. Colostrum is high in protein, low in fat and sugar and is highly concentrated so only small amounts are needed by your baby. Not only does it provide the perfect balance of nutrients for your baby in the early days, it is also high in antibodies that helps to strengthen your baby’s gut health and immune system.


So what’s Colostrum ‘Harvesting’

Firstly, I just have to say that colostrum ‘harvesting’ needs some serious rebranding! I get it, as you’re literally storing up a food supply for when the dark and cold days come and there isn’t any food for your baby, but it’s really not that fun to feel like some kind of agricultural project. 

So from now on, I’lll be referring to colostrum harvesting as ‘colostrum collection’ (not much more sexy I know, but it feels slightly better to me). OK, where were we…


You start to make colostrum during your pregnancy (the timing can vary between individuals) and it will be your baby’s main source of milk until your ‘milk comes in’ on around day 3-5 postpartum. So it’s quite a small window of time when your newborn baby will need colostrum, but it is such awesome stuff that it can make a big difference to our little ones.

If you want to try collecting your colostrum, it’s recommended that you start stimulating your breast and collecting colostrum via a syringe from around 36/37 weeks pregnant, storing the milk in the freezer and keeping it safe to use in the first few days of your baby arriving into the world. It’s stored away as a bit of an insurance breastfeeding policy, just in case you have problems feeding your baby. 


For some women, they will already know that there is a higher chance of them having challenges breastfeeding their baby in the early days. According to the NHS the following situations mean that feeding your baby could be a challenge, so having some stored colostrum could help:

  • Your baby is large or small for their gestational age 

  • Your baby is a twin or triplet 

  • Your baby has a cleft lip or palate 

  • Your baby has Down’s syndrome or a heart condition 

  • If you are taking beta blockers to control high blood pressure 

  • If you have developed pre-eclampsia during pregnancy

  • If you are diabetic or have developed diabetes during pregnancy 

  • If you have polycystic ovary syndrome 

  • If you have breast hypoplasia (a condition in which the breast doesn’t fully develop) or you have had breast surgery

  • If you  have a raised body mass index (BMI) 

  • If you plan to give birth by caesarean section (c-section)


With the last bullet on the NHS list above, I think it’s important to mention than many women do find themselves having unexpected c-sections (the c-section rate has continued to rise since 2014*) so may be glad of the extra supply of colostrum they have stored away. 



Five benefits of Colostrum collecting

Beyond the immediate benefit of having an exclusive store of the good stuff, if your baby comes to need it after they’re born, their other benefits to practicing stimulating your breasts to collect colostrum in the last weeks of your pregnancy:


1)Learning about your beautiful breasts:

For women who have not had a baby before, it’s a pretty new thing to have milk coming from your breast and to have a baby feeding from your body. If you choose to start collecting colostrum, or even trying to, later in your pregnancy it can be a great way to become more familiar with your breasts and how the breast works in terms of releasing milk (or colostrum in this case).


2) Learning how to hand express milk:

This is similar to the above, but through trying to collect colostrum whilst you're pregnant it gives you a chance to play and explore how your breast works and how to stimulate the breast so that you can hand express milk in the future if you need or want to. 


3) You can get your partner involved:

It can be a bit of a faff trying to collect your colostrum into a syringe, so if you have a partner, you can ask for them help in collecting the colostrum once you have released it from your breast. It can be a way of your partner potentially feeling more involved with breastfeeding. 


4) Learning the impact of oxytocin on the body:

When practicing collecting colostrum, it can really help if you do it after a bath or a warm shower, in a quiet, calm space or perhaps even after watching a funny TV show. All of these things will help you to relax, which will help your oxytocin hormone (the happy hormone) to flow, which then helps your colostrum to flow. Starting to understand and feel this in your body early on, can help when it comes to learning to breastfeed with your baby. 


5) Increasing your confidence to breastfeed:

Taking the time to connect with your body more deeply before your baby comes into the world can make a big difference to your confidence in how breastfeeding (and other baby stuff) works when you have your baby in your arms. Through the time spent learning how to release and collect colostrum from the breast, it can mean that it feels much more familiar when it comes to feeding your baby and if your colostrum collection goes to plan, it can give you some confidence beforehand about your body’s ability to make milk for your baby.  



Woman breastfeeding baby

I recently asked my Postnatal Yoga Mum’s group about their experiences of colostrum harvesting and it was fascinating to hear about their experiences. On the whole, it seemed positive and although very few women actually ended up using the colostrum for their newborn baby that they’d collected, most of them seemed happy that they had tried. Here was some of their comments:

“I didn’t end up needing it for my second baby, but I was still really glad I did it - I got very good at hand expressing and doing it in early labour really helped ramp things up.”


“It took me a few attempts to get the knack of it but it eventually became a bit of an evening ritual. My partner would help with the collection which helped him feel involved in the feeding process before we’d even started and made it less for me to do all at once.”


“It boosted my confidence that breastfeeding would work out. Especially as the first syringe took three sessions over a day and by the end I did a whole one in about 10mins! Didn’t really need it in the hospital but we did feed it to baby before we went home.”



What if you can’t or choose not to?

I think it’s important to say that it will also be OK if you don’t decide to collect your colostrum before your baby comes, or if you can’t. As I mentioned at the beginning, only 10yrs ago colostrum collecting was not something that was common or particularly even mentioned if anyone was doing it, which means that for a very long time women were fine without doing it. 

If you try and you are unable to produce any colostrum, it doesn’t mean that you won’t produce colostrum after your baby is born. 

If you decide not to (for fears of bringing on labour, or it just isn’t something you want to do), then it doesn’t mean that you won’t be able to breastfeed your baby when they arrive, if that is something you want to do. 


Some women in my Postnatal Yoga Mums group didn’t collect colostrum when they were pregnant - some because they tried and weren’t able to make any colostrum, others because they were worried about inducing labour, and others because they simply didn’t feel the need to. Some wished they had and others felt fine that they hadn’t. 


“I didn’t for any of my pregnancies. First two I didn’t have access to this information and didn’t know anyone that did…Third most recently, I didn’t feel the need to as I felt confident in breastfeeding.”


“I tried both times and couldn’t get any. Luckily, I didn’t need it as feeding was OK but I found harvesting impossible!”


“I tried it during pregnancy but it didn’t work, and then I got worried that I wouldn’t be able to breastfeed. In the end, I ended up harvesting it post-birth and feeding my baby for the first few days from a syringe as we weren’t getting the knack of feeding. So that was also a bit of a relief.”



Final thoughts

I have to confess, that when I first heard about colostrum ‘harvesting’, I thought “what is this over-cautious, agricultural breastfeeding insurance policy?! And is it really necessary??” I initially felt that preparing women to collect their colostrum in advance, ‘just in case’ they can’t when your baby arrives, was setting women up to fail and framing breastfeeding negatively before they’d even begun. 

But once I started to speak to women I know about their individual experiences of breastfeeding, I started to see how positive it can be, helping to empower women to feel more comfortable and confident in their bodies. Learning how to create a relaxed environment, where you can stimulate your breast and watch your incredible body produce the golden elixir that is colostrum can be a beautiful way to see how awesome your body can be! 

It can also be anxiety inducing if it doesn’t work that way for you. So it’s important to remember that your body is still awesome, and with the right support your breastfeeding journey with your baby can still be a positive one. 



For more info on colostrum collecting/harvesting check out ‘How to Express Your First Milk’ by Global Health Media 





References:


*Collecting your colostrum while you are pregnant, NHS University Hospital Southampton 


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