If you’re like many moms-to-be, when you think about breastfeeding your newborn, you envision your breast milk as the hearty, plentiful, whitish elixir that comes in with a flourish a few days after giving birth and lovingly nourishes your baby in the weeks, months, and—ideally—years after he or she is born. Chock-full of vitamins, minerals, enzymes, antibodies, beneficial bacteria, and much, much more, breast milk is truly nature’s perfect food for a baby’s growing mind, body, and immune system.
But breast milk is far from static—one of the most amazing properties of this maternal masterpiece is that it’s incredibly dynamic, and it changes based on your baby’s unique developmental and immunological needs. For example, did you know that during breastfeeding, your body makes sure to orchestrate a rapid increase in immune-boosting white blood cells in your breast milk when your baby is sick, to help prevent and combat illness and infection? A mother starts making antibodies just 20 minutes after inhaling or ingesting a virus (like when being sneezed on)! It’s all true, and this remarkable malleability starts way sooner than you may think.
You see, during the first few weeks of your baby’s life, the composition of your breast milk fluctuates from hour to hour and day to day, and it all begins with one short but mighty stage that may just be the unsung hero of all the lactation phases—colostrum.
Pure liquid gold.
Beginning in mid- to late pregnancy, your breasts begin to produce a substance called colostrum that will be your baby’s first dose of concentrated nutrition for several days after birth. Measured in teaspoons rather than ounces, colostrum is the perfect example of how it’s quality, not quantity, that matters when it comes to optimal nourishment for your newborn bundle of joy.
Often called liquid gold because of its amazing, health-giving properties, colostrum contains a number of compounds that protect and support your baby’s growth, development, and immunity during those first few days, including beneficial bacteria, growth factors, antioxidants, hormones, fatty acids, antibodies, and cytokines.
In fact, colostrum is so high in immunoglobulins (immune factors like secretory IgA, leukocytes, and lactoferrin) that it provides all-important passive immunity for your baby until his own immune system kicks into gear. Many experts even consider colostrum to be a baby’s first (100 percent natural) immunization. In one eye-opening study on adults, colostrum supplements were three times more effective than vaccination at preventing the flu—now that’s one powerful compound!
Low in fat and high in protein and carbohydrates, colostrum is also incredibly easy to digest, and it works as a gentle laxative to flush baby’s digestive system and encourage the passing of meconium, baby’s first stool. This process clears your baby’s body of bilirubin, a waste product that can cause jaundice. Also on the digestive front, babies are born with permeable intestines (similar to a leaky gut), and colostrum coats their gastrointestinal tracts to seal them up, thereby preventing bacteria, viruses, and allergens from passing through to the bloodstream.
What’s more, colostrum is absolutely brimming with human milk oligosaccharides (HMOs), prebiotics that feed and nurture all the friendly flora (aka probiotics) that are busy setting up shop in your baby’s digestive tract—these are the very microbes that will form his microbiome, the foundation of his immune system and overall health for years to come. And although all breast milk boasts HMOs, colostrum has the most, with 20 to 25 grams/liter, as opposed to just 5 to 20 g/L in later-stage milk.
So how do you make sure your baby gets as much of this life-supporting superfood as possible?
The first step in maximizing your baby’s intake of this powerful superfood compound is identifying it! Usually yellow or orange in color—but it can be clear or brownish as well—colostrum is thick and sticky, like syrup.
As soon as your baby is born, your colostrum production really ramps up! Miraculously designed to fully support all your baby’s needs in the first few days of life, colostrum is all the milk your body will produce for two to five days (don’t worry; your baby’s stomach is so small that it can only hold a teaspoon of milk at the beginning!). The good news is that the more you breastfeed at this point—every two hours is ideal—the more colostrum your little one gets, and the more easily you can establish your milk supply.
After a couple of days of pure colostrum, your body starts to make transitional milk (this is what happens when your milk "comes in"), which is a combination of colostrum and mature breast milk. Toward the end of the second week after birth, transitional milk turns into mature milk, which is light yellow, white, or even blue-tinged, and is thinner than the earlier stages of breast milk.
If you or your baby is having trouble breastfeeding right after birth, try frequent (every two hours from start to start) hand expressing or pumping with the help of a lactation consultant to get every last drop (and remember, it will only be drops—most moms produce only an ounce of colostrum in the first 24 hours!) and to ensure you effectively activate your milk ducts for better odds of a healthy milk supply in the days ahead.
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