Pregnancy is a major time of preparation for your breasts. Everyone thinks about how the baby is growing, but at the same time you have more development in your breasts during pregnancy than you do during adolescence! About midway through pregnancy, your breasts begin actually making milk.
This first milk is called colostrum.There is not much of it; it’s thick and usually bright yellow and it is filled with concentrated antibodies and other nutrients that are specific to a newborn’s needs. There isn’t much volume because a baby doesn’t take much those the first few days of life.
Is it safe?
There aren’t any really good studies that have been done on either the safety of prenatal colostrum expression for mom and baby (or the pregnancy) nor whether the composition of colostrum expressed prenatally is the same as colostrum ready for baby at birth. A few small studies seem to imply that there are no ill effects for most pregnant women and their babies.
Oxytocin released with nipple stimulation may trigger uterine contractions, but for a woman with no history or symptoms of preterm labor, the amount of oxytocin released is no more worrisome that that released during orgasm or while nursing an older sibling. In other words, its an amount you may already be experience in your day to day life.
Why would you want to start the grind of milk expression even before baby comes?
There are a few circumstances where having some stockpiled colostrum might be helpful for a new mom. For instance, women with diabetes sometimes find it takes longer than the usual 3-4 days for their milk to come in. Moms who have a history of low milk supply might also find it helpful to have extra colostrum as a back-up in case the low milk scenario begins anew.
There is some thought that pre-natal colostrum expression gives women time to practice the skill of hand expression to help her be more comfortable with the process once her baby has arrived. Even in our pumping culture, hand expression is an extremely valuable skill to develop, and you can check out one of our favorite hand expression videos here.
Don’t let it take the place of breastfeeding!
Even if there is a supply of colostrum stashed ahead of time, a newborn still needs to have every opportunity to feed directly at the breast as often as he will. The back-up supply should only be used if problems develop. Frequent early feedings at the breast help kick start mom’s progress toward building an abundant milk supply and give the baby lots of practice time while the flow of milk is still slow.
Peace of mind vs. over-stressing
Every woman has a different history and prognosis and there is no one right answer for everyone. I can see that for some the time and energy spent expressing before the baby comes might be worth the peace of mind of having extra of your own milk available for your baby. Where there is easy access to a milk bank, the value of this is questionable. But if the most likely alternative is formula in the event of breastfeeding difficulties, then the need for colostrum is clearer.
Where there is a real concern for the success of breastfeeding in the first few days of life, prenatal expression seems like a viable option. However, I would hate to see this get to be another way a mom can stress about the adequacy of her milk and her body. Sometimes I mourn the loss of the give-and-take balance a mother and baby build with one another in a breastfeeding relationship. Most moms are not going to benefit from expressing colostrum before baby comes. Let’s save it for those few for whom it would really be a help.
For specifics on how to go about expressing colostrum, go here.