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When you're pregnant, you can collect colostrum by hand expressing, then use it to feed your newborn baby.

What is Colostrum Harvesting?

Colostrum (the first milk produced by the body during pregnancy) can be expressed by hand from 36 to 37 weeks. This can then be safely stored in preparation for your baby’s arrival.

Antenatal hand expression of colostrum can help you feel more prepared for breastfeeding, and means you have some nutrient-rich milk ready to give to your baby when they're born. It's a great step for anyone who's pregnant, but it's particularly recommended for those who…

  • are diabetic or have developed diabetes during pregnancy
  • take beta blockers
  • have developed pre-eclampsia during pregnancy
  • have polycystic ovary syndrome
  • have breast hypoplasia or have had breast surgery
  • have a raised BMI
  • are expecting twins
  • are planning a caesarean section delivery

It can also help if your baby's likely to experience issues with their blood sugar levels or may struggle to feed after birth because they…

  • are large or small for their gestational age
  • are a twin or triplet
  • have a cleft lip or palate
  • have Down’s syndrome or a heart condition

This guide is here to tell you everything you need to know about colostrum, including what it is, and how to collect, store and transport it.

What is colostrum?

During the later stages of pregnancy, you start to produce breastmilk. The exact time when this happens varies from one person to the next.

Colostrum is the first breastmilk your body makes. It's thick and sticky in consistency, and usually yellow, clear, or milky coloured. It is high in calories, full of antibodies and packed with stem cells. This supports your baby’s immune system and development and can help you establish a good breastfeeding routine from birth and beyond.  

Colostrum is highly concentrated and produced in small amounts. When they're born, a baby’s stomach is about the size of a marble, so even a small amount of colostrum gives them all the nutrients they need at first.

How does colostrum harvesting work?

You can collect colostrum by hand when you’re pregnant. You should only use your hands for expressing during pregnancy. It's recommended that you don’t use a breast pump to express breastmilk until after your baby has been born.

Before you begin to hand express and collect colostrum, be sure to speak to your midwife or a healthcare professional first. They can help make sure it's right for you and your baby, and can give you answers to any questions you have.

When you feel ready to get started, you can hand express for a few minutes once a day from the 36th or 37th week of your pregnancy. Over time, you can increase this until you’re spending between five to 10 minutes a time gently expressing up to five times a day. You can then express as regularly as needed in the first few days after your baby arrives.

Step-by-step guide to harvesting colostrum

Before you start expressing, you should make sure your hands are clean, and you will need sterilised oral syringes and a larger sterilised container. To collect your colostrum, follow these simple steps…

  1. First things first, make yourself comfortable. Warmth can help, so try massaging your boobs with a warm flannel and expressing in the shower or bath.
  2. Then, firmly but slowly massage your breast from the top down towards your nipple.
  3. After a few minutes of massaging, cup one of your breasts with your hand in a ‘C’ shape around the nipple with four fingers under the breast and the thumb at the top.
  4. Use your thumb and index finger to stroke and squeeze your breast around the nipple to express the colostrum. Do this gently and don’t carry on if it's painful.
  5. Once you can see colostrum gathering drop by drop at the end of your nipple, collect it using a sterilised syringe. If needed, you can decant it into a larger sterile container.
  6. When the drops of colostrum slow down, move your hand around and express from a different section of your breast.
  7. Then repeat the process for your second breast.

How much colostrum you collect in an expressing session can vary from just a few drops to a teaspoon full. Don’t compare yourself to others and remember that every drop counts!

It's important to note that colostrum harvesting produces oxytocin (the hormone that produces contractions in labour). On rare occasions, it can also stimulate Braxton Hicks contractions. Don’t worry though, it's very rare for colostrum harvesting to trigger the onset of labour.

If you experience mild labour contractions or cramps comparable to period pain, it’s recommended that you stop harvesting colostrum. Take some time to rest before trying again. If contractions continue while you're collecting colostrum, you should seek medical advice and wait until you’re closer to your due date before you resume.

You might be advised not to harvest your colostrum if you have…

  • a cervical suture (stitches)
  • experienced premature labour in the past
  • had contractions, vaginal bleeding and/or premature rupture of membranes (your waters breaking early) during your pregnancy

How to store colostrum

Once collected, your colostrum syringes can be dated, labelled, and stored in your freezer, ready to give to your baby once they arrive.

You can store your expressed colostrum syringes in the back of the fridge at 2°C to 4°C for up to 24 hours before you freeze it. Colostrum that's stored in the freezer immediately will last for…

  • up to six months if kept in a freezer -18°C or under
  • up to eight days if kept in a fridge 4°C or under
  • up to 24 hours if kept in a cool bag with ice packs (when transporting to hospital)

When you label your syringes, be sure to include…

  • your name
  • the date and time the colostrum was expressed

How to take your colostrum into hospital

To bring your expressed colostrum into hospital when you have your baby, you will need…

  • re-sealable food bags
  • a small cool bag
  • a bag of crushed ice or some ice blocks

When you’re going to hospital to give birth, you can place some of your frozen colostrum syringes in a re-sealable bag, and put it inside a cool bag between a bag of crushed ice or some ice blocks.

You should let your midwife know that you have colostrum with you when you arrive at the hospital. They will label it with the date and time it was removed from your freezer at home and store it in the hospital fridge or freezer for you.

Feeding your baby colostrum

Once they're born, some newborns struggle to breastfeed at first, and others are unable to maintain their blood sugar levels. In these situations, your expressed colostrum is the perfect first food for your baby.

Before you feed your baby, the syringe needs to be brought to room temperature. To do this, you can place the bag with the syringe fully into warm water. Then, your midwife will show you how to feed your baby using the syringe or a small cup.

Having a small feed with colostrum helps give your newborn a boost in energy and blood sugar levels. It can also help to encourage them to breastfeed.