In recognition of Breastfeeding Awareness Month, we’re talking about colostrum and why it’s crucial to the health and wellbeing of a newborn.
Colostrum is the first milk produced by a woman after giving birth and the first food a breastfed baby receives. In some women, colostrum may be yellow and thick. For others, it may be clear and watery. As it is full of infection-fighting components, some also consider it the first immunization a baby receives.
We sat down with Erin Hamilton Spence, M.D., IBCLC, neonatologist at Cook Children’s Medical Center and Baylor Scott & White All Saints Medical Center in Fort Worth, Texas, and Barbara Carr, M.D., neonatologist at Saint Luke’s Hospital of Kansas City in Kansas City, Missouri, to discuss common questions for expecting and new moms.
Benefits of colostrum
Colostrum is nutrient-dense, containing protein, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins and minerals, which aid in fighting infections and boosting a baby’s immune system. Colostrum is loaded with white blood cells that produce antibodies used to combat bacteria and viruses. This is why many refer to it as a superfood for newborns. Colostrum is rich in immunoglobulins ready to fight infection. It has a higher amount of active white blood cells than any other point in milk production, all geared at protecting the newborn baby. In addition to fighting infections and supporting immunization, colostrum is bursting with powerful benefits, including:
- Promoting healthy digestion – Colostrum is easily digested and supports the growth of healthy bacteria. It provides intestinal protection that helps stave off infections and diseases.
- Stabilizing the body – Colostrum helps regulate a baby’s blood-sugar levels, which is vital to brain development because glucose is the main source of energy for the brain.
- Cleansing and preparing the GI tract – Colostrum acts as a natural laxative, helping a newborn pass meconium, the first stools. It also helps lay down a protective layer to establish a thriving microbiome with rich human milk oligosaccharides.
- Supporting preemie growth – Colostrum helps premature babies grow and thrive.
What if a mom only produces a small amount of colostrum?
A baby has received its nutrients through the umbilical cord during the entire pregnancy, and babies have built-in reserves to help them after delivery. A term newborn’s stomach is tiny, about the size of a marble, and it will stretch in response to increasing milk volumes produced by a mother. Therefore, even the smallest amount of colostrum will start providing nutrients and protection. More frequent feedings result in more colostrum intake and help “bring in” a woman’s milk.
“It is important to engage with pediatricians and other lactation specialists if a new mom is worried about her milk supply at any time, especially during the first two weeks after birth,” said Dr. Hamilton-Spence. “This period is often fraught with doubt and challenges for a woman’s body and her family, like no other time in her life!”
Do all expectant moms produce colostrum?
Yes, production of colostrum starts as early as 16 weeks of pregnancy. Some expectant mothers will leak colostrum during pregnancy, which is normal. In addition, women who have nursed before will usually produce more colostrum than a first-time breastfeeding mother.
What if the colostrum doesn’t come in right away?
There are many reasons milk supply is delayed. For example, this could happen when:
- A baby is born prematurely.
- The mom has certain medical conditions or received certain medications.
- The baby was born via C-section without laboring.
- When a medical condition requires mother and baby to be separated after birth.
“If colostrum doesn’t come in right away, a mother’s health care team will discuss other options to provide nourishment for the baby until the mother’s colostrum is available,” said Dr. Carr. “In addition, women can use hand expression, particularly during the first few days after giving birth, as a way to get colostrum for their baby.
“The first two to three days are critical for a mother to have good lactation support so she understands what is normal and what isn't. It's incredibly easy for a new mother to feel inadequate with a crying baby in her arms and switch to formula feeding when, in reality, it may be very normal infant behavior magnified by lack of sleep pushing the ever-present maternal guilt button.”
Does formula contain colostrum?
No, colostrum is unique to women who have just given birth. While formulas contain the basic nutritional blocks of carbohydrates, fat, protein, vitamins and minerals, there is no replacement or substitute for colostrum.
The importance of colostrum and breastfeeding
Breastfeeding has numerous benefits for both moms and babies. Now, with the knowledge and understanding of the role colostrum plays in the health of newborns, moms have even more reasons to breastfeed their babies from the moment they make their entrance.
“The first two weeks after a baby is born are the hardest time in a mother’s life,” said Dr. Hamilton-Spence. “As a mother and a neonatologist who spends nights in the hospital with new moms frequently, I can tell you with great confidence that the sleep deprivation, establishing lactation and worry over all of it collide to sow doubt in even the most determined new mom. Add the simple fact that you feel like you are faking it all, doing what someone else told you would work, and many moms give up on their dream of breastfeeding. I’m happy to see that in the decades since I started having kids, more and more mothers are both starting to breastfeed and succeeding at their own breastfeeding goals.”