When Pamela Weiss Hakakian, of Los Angeles, was eight and a half months pregnant, a friend told her that her early milk had probably already come in and that she should try squeezing her nipples. Later that night, Hakakian did—and was shocked by what happened next. "This yellowish liquid started to slowly come out," she recalls. "I was surprised by the color and had to Google 'colostrum' to make sure something wasn't off."
Like Hakakian, many women aren't sure what to expect when they first start producing colostrum. We asked experts to help demystify what may well be your baby's first superfood.
What is colostrum? Colostrum is the initial milk a woman produces midway through pregnancy and during the first few days after she delivers. This thick, concentrated fluid, which is often a golden color, is very low in volume and might not seem like much, but it actually provides huge benefits to your baby. "During the first days of a newborn's life, there is little to no need for nutrition, but there's a tremendous need for proper and specific biological actions that occur to program the baby's immune system," says Lori Feldman-Winter, M.D., professor of pediatrics at the Cooper Medical School of Rowan University, division head of adolescent medicine at the Children's Regional Hospital at Cooper University Health Care, and a spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics. "This is served by colostrum."
What does colostrum do? A better question might be, what doesn't it do? Colostrum is basically your baby's first superfood. As Joan Younger Meek, M.D., R.D., professor of clinical sciences at Florida State University College of Medicine and chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics' section on breastfeeding, explains: "Colostrum contains just what a baby needs in the right amounts—it's low in sugar but high in protein, and much of that is in the form of immune factors, such as secretory immunoglobulin A, which is designed to line the baby's intestine and protect it from bacteria and viruses that can cause infection." And that's not all. Colostrum also contains fat-soluble vitamins and antioxidants, helps to colonize the intestine with lactobacillus (protective bacteria), and has a natural laxative effect that promotes pooping, Dr. Meek adds. Frequent breastfeeding in the early days of your baby's life can even help reduce the risk of serious jaundice.
With so many benefits, there's no wonder that some people refer to colostrum as "liquid gold." In fact, "it should really be considered more like a medication or the baby's first immunization than as merely a food," Dr. Meek says. "The nutrition is only a minor part of its importance."
What if I'm having trouble breastfeeding—or don't plan to breastfeed? Of course, it's a no-brainer that a new mom would want her baby to have such protection, but some women might have trouble breastfeeding at first. "There can be a problem with getting the colostrum out of the breast if there is either too much stress, there is a disconnect in the ducts from prior breast surgery, or there is ineffective milk expression," says Dr. Feldman-Winter. If that's the case, work with a lactation consultant, who can help get you on the right track—ask to speak to one at the hospital, or find one in your area through the International Lactation Consultant Association (ilca.org).
If you're having trouble getting your newborn to latch, you can express colostrum into a teaspoon or a small container so you can then feed it to your baby, advises Dr. Meek. Keep in mind that newborns don't need much fluid initially and that just a little bit of colostrum provides them with all the nutrients they need. In fact, a newborn baby will get only a tiny bit of colostrum at each feeding because her stomach is extremely small and can't handle large amounts of fluid.
Even if you aren't planning on breastfeeding long-term, experts advise that you at least give your baby colostrum those first few days. "Any amount of human milk provides some level of protection and will help to fight diseases and infections," says Dr. Feldman-Winter. "There is no formula that can mimic the biologically active substances that exist in human milk."
At first, your breasts won't feel full but, again, what colostrum lacks in volume it makes up for in potency. A few days after delivery, your milk will "come in"—the volume will increase and the fluid will become a creamier white substance. (In other words, it will look more like what you think of when you think of breast milk!) And, of course, that breast milk will continue to provide countless benefits to both you and your baby, including the nutrition and calories your growing baby needs.
Bottom line: Plenty of women take colostrum for granted, thinking it's just simply the precursor to real breast milk when, in fact, colostrum is exceptionally important. "Nature has manufactured a perfect way to permit our offspring to live the healthiest and disease-free life, using biological and genetic mechanisms that are far-reaching and complex, and that utilize the shared genetic and environmental features between a mother and baby," says Dr. Feldman-Winter. "It's nothing short of miraculous."
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