As a pediatrician, so many of the questions I get from new moms involve breastfeeding their newborns. I find, however, that the biggest questions regarding breastfeeding tend to arise within the first day or two after the baby is born. From worrying the baby isn’t getting enough nutrition to wondering how much milk new moms should be producing, I tend to find that new parents overestimate what the baby needs, and underestimate the value of colostrum.
What is it?
Colostrum is the first milk produced during a pregnancy, and it is an extremely important part of your baby’s developmental plan. It is incredibly rich - full of antibodies and glycoproteins with fascinating functions. Colostrum is thicker than the breast milk that comes in within three to four days after birth and ranges in color from clear to deep golden. Because of its thickness, pumping is generally not as effective as breastfeeding or hand expressing in removing colostrum from the breast. Colostrum is in highest concentration at the first feeding, after it has been collecting in the breasts for the last bit of your pregnancy. This feeding typically ranges from five to 25mL. As you continue to feed your newborn, colostrum will slowly be replaced with mature milk.
Why is there so little colostrum?
Babies come out waterlogged from being surrounded by amniotic fluid for nine months They have sugar stored up in their livers and the same kind of fat as a hibernating bear. They have small stomachs, which initially holds about 5 mL but stretch out over the first few days of life. It is hard work to get the colostrum from the breast, and the tiny tummy empties pretty quickly, so the baby will seem to feed constantly in the first three days. Many new moms worry their baby isn’t getting enough nutrients, but your baby actually has enough fluid and calories packed into their system to make it through until Mom’s milk comes in. The frequent feeds actually promote a great milk supply in Mom.
Why is it important?
Your body has protected your baby from the outside world for nine months. The baby has only had exposure to human proteins and a sterile environment. One of the reasons colostrum is so important is because it readies them for introduction into this new environment filled with germs and foreign proteins. From the air, to the blanket they are wrapped in to their own thumbs, new babies are now exposed to hundreds if not thousands of germs and proteins they were not previously exposed to. All of the specialized proteins and antibodies that colostrum contains serve to protect your baby from the infections these germs could cause, and act to mature the intestines so that they can exclude foreign proteins from the bloodstream, preventing allergies and other harm from them. Colostrum is essential to the baby’s health.
What are other benefits of colostrum?
- Aside from serving as the final step in preparation for your baby to be in the outside world apart from you, colostrum offers so many benefits for your newborn.
- It has a laxative effect for the baby, which helps them pass their meconium.
- Because of this laxative effect, it aids in the ridding of excess bilirubin and helps to prevent jaundice.
- Colostrum contains a large concentration of white cells called leukocytes. These leukocytes help to protect your baby against infection along with the antibodies.
- Because of its anti-infective nature, colostrum may also help mothers with sore breasts-putting a little colostrum on the affected area will help to heal any irritation you might be having from a poor latch.
The benefits of colostrum are enormous, and understanding what it is and what it does could be an important factor in your decision to breastfeed.
Do you have any questions regarding colostrum or breastfeeding? Sharing any first-time mom apprehensions you may have with moms who have first-hand breastfeeding experience may help to lessen your uneasiness. Get in on the conversation and leave a comment below!
Dr. Melaine Mouzoon, F.A.A.P., is a pediatric hospitalist and managing physician of Immunization Practices and Travel Medicine at Kelsey-Seybold. She’s an advocate for supporting new moms in achieving successful breastfeeding and in helping new dads to become involved in the care and emotional support of their children.