What Is Colostrum?

Colostrum is the first breast milk your body produces, and it's full of nutrients and antioxidants. Learn more about how long colostrum lasts and what to expect during feedings.

Mother breastfeeding newborn baby in hospital

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Often referred to as "liquid gold," colostrum is the yellowish milk that's available for your baby right after birth, before your mature milk comes in a few days later. Colostrum has many amazing benefits for babies—for example, it strengthens their immune system, protects against jaundice, and helps them have their first poop.

If you're a new parent, you likely have many questions about colostrum, including how much colostrum your baby needs, what to if your baby isn't able to latch when you're producing colostrum, and how to ensure if your baby is getting enough.

We connected with three experts in the field—a pediatrician specializing in breastfeeding, a lactation consultant, and a neonatologist—to help answer parents' most common questions about colostrum.

What Is Colostrum?

Colostrum is the first form of breast milk for your baby. It's full of nutrients and antioxidants, but it only lasts two to four days before mature milk starts coming in.

What Does Colostrum Contain?

Colostrum contains nutrients that are just right for a newborn's system, along with disease-fighting substances. "Colostrum is a baby's first super food," says Kara Thornton, IBCLC, lactation consultant at Via Lactea. "It's a nutritional powerhouse that delivers powerful antibodies to build a strong immune system."

Indeed, colostrum carries immune system components like immunoglobulins, lactoferrin (a protein with antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties), and growth factors, says Jenelle Ferry, M.D., neonatologist and director of feeding, nutrition, and infant development at Pediatrix Medical Group in Tampa, Florida.

Nutritionally, colostrum is higher in protein and lower in fat than mature milk. "The differences in composition are why a baby needs so much less volume of colostrum than they will for mature milk," explains Dr. Ferry.

Kara Thornton, IBCLC, lactation consultant at Via Lactea

"Colostrum is a baby's first super food. It's a nutritional powerhouse that delivers powerful antibodies to build a strong immune system."

— Kara Thornton, IBCLC, lactation consultant at Via Lactea

What Does Colostrum Look Like?

We usually think of breast milk as a white substance, but colostrum looks a little different. For starters, it's usually yellowish in color. "Colostrum gets the nickname 'liquid gold' partly because of its golden/bright or dark yellow color," describes Dr. Ferry. Colostrum might be other colors as well (such as clear, white, or orange), and this is also normal.

As for consistency, colostrum tends to be on the more viscous side. "Colostrum has the thick, sticky consistency of honey," says Thornton.

When Does Colostrum Come In?

Colostrum production actually begins much earlier than your delivery date. Your body starts making colostrum as early as 12-18 weeks of pregnancy, according to the American Pregnancy Association. By the third trimester, many parents-to-be can express a little by hand, and some parents notice leaking colostrum.

When Do You Start Leaking Colostrum?

Some pregnant people leak colostrum starting in the second trimester. This might look like a crusty yellow substance on your breasts or the inside of your bra. But don't worry: If you don't leak colostrum, that's normal too—your body is still making it.

You might also wonder, does leaking colostrum mean labor is close? The answer is no, according to the Cleveland Clinic, because the leaking can occur weeks or months before you're ready for delivery.

The Benefits of Colostrum for Babies

Colostrum has many important benefits for your baby and was designed specifically to carry them through the first few days of life. Perhaps its most important benefit is that it gives your baby's immune system a boost.

"Colostrum is rich in immunoglobulins and other anti-infection proteins," explains Cindy Rubin, M.D., IBCLC, pediatrician and breastfeeding medicine specialist at In Touch Pediatrics and Lactation in Westchester, Illinois. "Newborns have a very immature immune system, so colostrum helps to protect them while their body is starting to develop the means to protect itself."

Research has found that colostrum is full of white blood cells and a type of antibody called IgA. Colostrum has antibodies that can fight off pathogens such as salmonella, E.coli, rotavirus, streptococcus, candida and more.

Other significant benefits of colostrum include:

  • It primes your baby's gut microbiome
  • It helps your baby pass their first poop (meconium)
  • It is just the right amount of milk to fill your baby's small tummy
  • It protects them against developing jaundice
  • It helps prevent low blood sugar issues
  • It's a good source of healthy and balanced nutrition

How Long Does Colostrum Last?

Colostrum is a limited time deal. Although it's produced continually from the middle of pregnancy and through the first few days of birth, it begins to switch to mature milk within a few days of delivery. In general, colostrum lasts for the first 2-4 days after birth, before your mature milk starts to "come in."

The Stages of Breast Milk

  • Colostrum: Your baby's first milk that's available until about 2-4 days after birth
  • Transitional Milk: This contains a mix of colostrum and mature milk, and it's typically produced from day 7 to 14
  • Mature Milk: Your baby will receive mature milk after two weeks of nursing

Colostrum vs. Breast Milk: What's the Difference?

The biggest difference between colostrum and breast milk is availability; colostrum appears during the first few days after birth, and breast milk is produced for the rest of the time you're nursing. But there are some other differentiating factors as well. For example, "mature milk is higher in fat and carbohydrates than colostrum, though it still has immunoglobulins and continues to protect against infection as a baby grows," explains Dr. Rubin.

Colostrum also differs in color from mature breast milk—colostrum is usually yellowish, whereas mature breast milk is whitish. Breast milk is also thinner than colostrum and sometimes even takes on a bluish hue, says Dr. Rubin. Finally, mature milk is much higher in volume than colostrum.

How Much Colostrum Does a Newborn Need?

Although colostrum is much lower in volume than breast milk, it's exactly the right amount for your baby at that stage in their life. The American Pregnancy Association says most new parents produce 1-4 teaspoons of colostrum per day.

According to Dr. Ferry, about 5-15 milliliters (ml) of colostrum is produced during the first 24 hours of life, and this correlates to the stomach capacity of a baby that age. "A newborn stomach is only about the size of a cherry," she describes.

Your baby's stomach capacity will increase as they get older, and the amount of milk you produce will increase alongside that growth. Pretty amazing, huh? In general, though, there are no hard and fast rules about colostrum amounts and how much a baby should get. "The amount of colostrum that a parent produces/baby gets in the first few days is extremely variable and can differ from baby to baby," says Dr. Ferry. "In general, I think it's important to reassure families that very small amounts continue to increase every day."

And how do you know if your baby is getting enough colostrum in those first few days? "You can be assured that a baby is getting what they need by following wet and poopy diapers as well as weight," says Dr. Ferry. It's normal for babies to lose a bit of weight in their first few days of life, she says. But you should see some peeing and pooping within those first few days. "You should see at least one void (pee) and one poop in the first 24 hours, two of each in the second 24 hours, and three in the third 24 hours after birth," says Dr. Ferry.

A pediatrician will monitor your baby's weight and intake closely in those first few days and weeks of their life, and you can contact them with any questions or concerns.

Expressing Colostrum if Your Baby Isn't Nursing

Not everyone is able to directly breastfeed their babies during those first few days. This may be because of a medical condition in the birthing parent or baby, difficulty latching, or simply choosing to bottle-feed instead. Even if breastfeeding directly isn't in the cards for you at first (or at all), most experts encourage parents to express their colostrum and feed it to their newborn, because of all the protections that colostrum can offer.

"If you are unable to breastfeed after your baby is born for any reason, you can still provide colostrum for your baby," says Dr. Rubin. "You can hand express colostrum or pump, and feed whatever you get to your baby." In those first few days when you are still producing colostrum, hand expression is usually considered the best way to get your milk out, says Dr. Rubin.

"Due to the sticky thickness of colostrum, hand expression is often a better mode of collecting drops than an actual breast pump," agrees Thornton.

Some parents wonder if the colostrum they expressed can be added to the formula they may be feeding their baby, but Dr. Rubin doesn't recommend this practice. "If your baby doesn't finish a bottle of formula, then you've lost that mixed colostrum," she says. "I advise my patients to feed the colostrum first (by spoon, cup, or bottle), and then offer formula if it is needed."

If you have any further questions about colostrum, including how to ensure your baby is able to get enough of it and what to do if any challenges arise, connect with an OB-GYN, midwife, or lactation consultant.

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