Should You Pump Colostrum?

Pumping colostrum can be a tempting idea, but whether or not you should express milk in pregnancy or postpartum is pretty circumstantial. Here's what experts have to say about it.

There's not a lot of glamour in the days surrounding childbirth, but parents who plan on pumping, breast, or chest feeding might look forward to creating something known as liquid gold—a.k.a. colostrum.

This thick first milk produced by soon-to-be lactating parents before and immediately after giving birth is packed with nutrients and antibodies to protect little ones from infections, making it a key part of their growth in those early days.

So if colostrum is so valuable, it's only natural to wonder if you can or should pump your liquid gold either while pregnant or immediately postpartum to make the most of this brief window? We asked experts to explain.

An image of a woman holding a breast pump.
Getty Images.

Should You Pump Colostrum While Pregnant?

Pumping colostrum before birth can be a particularly tempting idea, especially if your breasts are feeling uncomfortably engorged or if you want to have a little bit stored away for the future. Also, some pregnant people notice that their breasts leak colostrum in the days leading up to birth (and why put that first milk to waste?!).

However, in most cases, experts agree that pumping colostrum should be avoided. It may even put pregnant people at risk. Here's why.

The main reason most pregnant people will want to avoid pumping during pregnancy is that it's not really necessary and it could cause contractions to happen, so if you're earlier than 37 weeks pregnant, it could be dangerous for your baby.

"Pumping colostrum isn't necessary during pregnancy and, while not likely, does have the propensity to induce labor—especially if you are at risk at all for preterm labor," explains Kristin Gourley, IBCLC, a Utah-based international board-certified lactation consultant with Lactation Link. "So it should always be used with caution and with the approval of your provider."

In fact, any breast stimulation should be approached with caution leading up to childbirth, Gourley explains, "Breast stimulation releases oxytocin, which is the same hormone that causes contractions." Particularly if you've been told you should be on pelvic rest during your pregnancy, no nipple stimulation at all is a good rule of thumb, since it does have the potential to induce labor.

There is an exception, though, according to Andrea Syms-Brown, IBCLC, a New York-based international board-certified lactation consultant. If you're aware of issues in advance that may require you to be separated from your baby immediately after birth, it may be helpful to remove, collect, and store colostrum. "This way, baby can be appropriately nourished right after being born," Syms-Brown says. "Also, if your health provider expresses any concerns about a potential delay in copious milk production, expressing beforehand may be helpful."

Should You Pump Colostrum Postpartum?

While pumping colostrum while pregnant isn't typically necessary, pumping colostrum after birth can be important in some circumstances, including if your baby is not latching well or if you and your baby may be separated for any reason, Gourley says.

"It's important to stimulate your breasts and remove colostrum in those early hours and days to promote a future good milk supply," she says. "But if the baby is healthy and feeding well and not having any issues, then just putting baby to the breast can be enough, and you can skip the pump."

How to Remove and Store Colostrum

For pregnant people who do need to remove colostrum, hand expression can sometimes be more effective than expressing colostrum with a pump. This is because colostrum exists in such a low volume (even 5 to 7 milliliters of colostrum is good nutrition for a little one) and is a slow-moving liquid, Syms-Brown explains. "Babies' stomachs are so small and therefore don't require a large volume to satisfy them."

Your hands can apply "positive pressure" to both your breast and your areola, she says. This positive pressure is important because it effectively squeezes the thick colostrum through the ducts under the areola. (A hospital-grade breast pump, on the other hand, provides only "negative" pressure, meaning it works by suctioning the milk from the ducts.)

You can also look at suction or "catch" pumps that will use gentle pressure or even no pressure at all to collect leaking breast milk, such as the Haakkaa or Elvie Catch or Curve.

If you do use an electric pump, applying breast massage for two to three minutes before pumping, as well as during pumping, can help you yield a few milliliters effectively.

Once you have your liquid gold, colostrum should be stored in small, airtight silicone or glass containers. If it will be used within two or three days, it can be stored in the refrigerator; otherwise, it can go in the freezer. To defrost the colostrum, let it sit at room temperature for about 20 minutes. Never heat or microwave the colostrum as it can destroy its beneficial properties.

The Bottom Line

If you're thinking about pumping colostrum, talk to your doctor before making any decisions.

Ideally, in both pregnancy and postpartum you won't have to worry about removing colostrum so that you can focus your attention on the main events: giving birth, recovering, and bonding with your little one. But if your doctor does recommend expressing and storing your colostrum before you give birth, it's a safe and straightforward process and there are tools that can help make it easier for you.

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