Should you hand express colostrum during pregnancy?

Colostrum used to be something you’d deal with after a baby was born. Not anymore. Just like the latest superfood trend, colostrum harvesting is suddenly all the rage as moms-to-be make like Madonna and “express yourself”. But before you rush to squeeze and freeze, here’s the skinny on this magic booby milk, commonly nicknamed liquid gold.

What is colostrum?

Around 12-18 weeks into your pregnancy, your boobs will start producing a thick yellow fluid that continues until a few days after you’ve given birth (when transitional milk kicks in). This, friends, is colostrum. 

“High in protein, minerals, vitamins and salts, colostrum is believed to build your baby’s immunity and help protect them against illness,” says gynecologist and fertility specialist  Dr Raewyn Teirney. 

“While it is made in small amounts, it is super-high in energy, which helps with your baby’s first bowel movement. It is also said to help maintain healthy gut bacteria for your baby to prevent post-birth jaundice”.

How much colostrum can be expressed?

Some women have boobs that operate like leaky taps during pregnancy; others simply can’t squeeze out a drop before their babe is born. And until you’re galloping towards your due date, you simply just won’t know which one you might be. The good news? If you can’t turn on the faucet and produce colostrum before you give birth, don’t fret- there’s no evidence that you’re at risk of having a low milk supply. Once it does come, as a general guide, expect to express 1-4 teaspoons of colostrum per day. 

Why you should express colostrum

There are a few pretty good reasons why you might choose to express colostrum. First, If you experience feeding issues once your little one is born, rather than having to rely on formula (if that’s not what you want to do), your harvested colostrum will be on standby for your babe to chug down.

“Your medical practitioner will guide you as to the necessity of expressing colostrum,”  says Dr Teirney. “Typically, if it is expected that your baby may need extra kilojoules after birth, your doctor may suggest expressing breast milk late into pregnancy.”

Harvesting colostrum, she adds, may help mothers who have gestational diabetes, babies with heart problems or congenital conditions such as Down syndrome, those with a cleft lip or palate who would have difficulty latching on to the nipple, babies born smaller than expected, or premature babies.

Additionally, babies born to mothers with diabetes can have low blood sugar after birth; according to the Australian Breastfeeding Association, receiving extra colostrum can help a newborn’s blood sugar even out.

It’s also a great way to practice hand-expressing; think of it as a chance to get your training wheels on before you begin your breastfeeding journey.

When not to express yourself

“There are no studies that indicate pumping or hand expressing colostrum is unsafe for you or your baby,” says Dr Teirney. “Some women may feel it should be avoided as it does cause mild cramping in the uterus, similar to menstrual cramps, but it generally doesn’t bring on early labor.”

However, she recommends some instances when you should avoid expressing colostrum, including if you’ve previously had a high-risk pregnancy, a thin cervix, a history of bleeding through pregnancy, if you’re having multiples, if you’ve been advised not to have sex during pregnancy, or experienced these things in a previous pregnancy.

“You should stop expressing immediately if you experience contractions at any time, and obviously do not express if your doctor has advised against expressing,” says Dr Teirney.

How to hand express colostrum

Dr Teirney recommends trying colostrum harvesting at 36 weeks, with 3-5 minutes of hand pumping for each breast, 2-3 times a day.

However, there is a knack to hand expressing colostrum. First, place your thumb and index finger about 1-2 inches from the areola (that’s the darker skinned area around the nipple) in a U shape. The real trick is to press your hand back in towards your chest: one of the biggest rookie mistakes when expressing colostrum is to squeeze out toward your nipple. Practice a little patience – it may take a minute or two to start dripping out.

And here’s a hot tip: hand expressing yields more colostrum than a breast pump in those first few hours.

How to store colostrum

Colostrum has very specific storage needs. Store it in a capped syringe in a sterile zip-locked bag, and label with the date and time. You then store it in the freezer, but not in the freezer door as temperatures can fluctuate (especially if you’ve got a reputation for heading back for a second scoop of Ben & Jerry’s).

Colostrum is good for three months in the freezer; once it has thawed, it needs to be used within 24 hours.

Lastly, if you’re utterly underwhelmed at the thought of milking yourself like a cow before birth, remember you don’t have to – you’ll have plenty of quality time with your boobs once that baby arrives.

Read next: Breastfeeding supplements: do they actually work?

Australian Breastfeeding Association, Antenatal expression of colostrum

Stanford Medicine, Hand expression of milk

American Pregnancy Association, Colostrum – the superfood for your newborn

Stanford Medicine, Breastmilk storage and shipping instructions

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