What Is Colostrum?

Medically Reviewed by Poonam Sachdev on October 07, 2022
5 min read

Breastfeeding is one of the earliest opportunities for you to make skin-to-skin contact and bond with your newborn. Your breast milk is the best source of nutrition for your baby. In the first few days after birth, your breasts produce a nutrient-rich fluid called colostrum.

Read on to learn everything you need to know about colostrum, including its benefits, functions, and more.

Your colostrum is usually golden yellow in color, similar to an egg yolk. This concentrated milk is sometimes referred to as liquid gold because of its coloring and high nutritional value to newborns. The yellow color of colostrum comes from fat-soluble colored pigments called carotenoids, which act as antioxidants.

Your colostrum could also appear clear, white, or creamy in some cases. It has a sticky consistency. It’s much thicker than usual breast milk or cow’s milk. It may even contain faint traces of blood, which is normal and not a matter of concern unless there’s active bleeding.

The pregnancy hormones (like progesterone) produced by the placenta prompt your body to start creating colostrum between 12 and 18 weeks of pregnancy. From the second trimester onward, your breasts may leak colostrum on occasion. Unless advised by your health care provider, don’t try to squeeze it out to minimize the risk of premature labor.

Once you deliver your baby, the placenta detaches from your uterus and is expelled out. Without the placenta, progesterone levels drop considerably, which sends a signal to your breasts to produce milk. 

Anytime from immediately to within the first 24 hours of delivery, you should be able to start breastfeeding. It usually comes out in drops because of its thick consistency, but it’s enough for your newborn. In case your baby is struggling to breastfeed, you can use your hands to express the colostrum and assist your newborn. Breast pumps may not work effectively for such thick milk.

If you can’t tell whether your baby’s receiving colostrum, observe their health for signs like whether they’re peeing regularly and either maintaining or not losing too much weight.

Newborns are vulnerable to infections from their surroundings since their immune system has yet to fully develop. Colostrum milk can provide ammunition to your baby’s immune system and act as the first line of defense against harmful organisms.

Colostrum contains your white blood cells (leukocytes), which produce antibodies (immunoglobulin A) that can defend against infections. When your baby consumes the milk, they get these antibodies, which can strengthen their immune system. 

Colostrum is rich in proteins and has low fat and sugar content. This includes proteins like lactoferrin, which has a protective action against infections, and epidermal growth factor, which promotes cell growth.

It also contains several important vitamins, like vitamin A, and minerals like magnesium, copper, and zinc. Vitamin A is necessary for your baby’s vision, immunity, and skin health. Magnesium is essential for your baby’s heart and bone development. 

Copper and zinc also play vital roles in supporting your baby’s immune system. In fact, colostrum has four times as much zinc and two times as much copper as regular breast milk. 

Although it’s thicker, colostrum is still easier to digest than normal breast milk because of its low fat and sugar components. Because it’s so nutrient-dense, the baby requires much less colostrum to meet its nutritional needs. About 1 to 4 teaspoons per day should be enough, as the newborn stomach is only the size of a marble. 

The three stages of breast milk expression include:

  1. Colostrum. This is the first milk expressed after delivery. Your body usually produces colostrum exclusively for two to five days, after which the milk composition begins to undergo some changes.
  2. Transitional milk. This milk contains a mixture of both colostrum and more mature milk. Transitional milk is usually produced from five days to up to two weeks after delivery. In this period, your milk production is likely to exponentially increase to meet the developmental and nutritional needs of your rapidly growing infant. This ramped-up supply is colloquially referred to as “your milk coming in,” which can make your breasts feel full, firm, and tender.
  3. Mature milk. By four to six weeks after delivery, the transition is complete, and all the milk you produce could be considered mature, without any traces of colostrum. This milk is thinner and whiter and has higher fat and sugar content. At this stage, your body should’ve stabilized, and your milk supply is also well established. 

Colostrum is useful to your newborn in the following ways:

  • Provides immunization. The maternal antibodies in your colostrum act as a natural antibiotic for your newborn by safeguarding them from environmental germs.  
  • Is a rich nutrient source. Your colostrum contains all the required nutrients for your newborn to grow safely and rapidly.
  • Improves gut health. Your colostrum is easy on your newborn’s tummy because of its low fat content. It also coats your baby’s intestines to prevent the entry of harmful infectious organisms. This helps in establishing a healthy gut in your newborn.
  • Acts as a natural laxative. Your colostrum helps in clearing your newborn’s first poop (meconium), which lowers your baby’s risk of developing jaundice.
  • Assists in body regulation. Your colostrum can help your baby regulate their body temperature, metabolism, lung and circulatory functions, and blood sugar levels so that they can acclimate to the external world as quickly as possible. Since they take only a small amount of colostrum at a time, they learn to breathe, suck, and swallow easily while feeding. 
  • Promotes growth. The growth factor proteins in your colostrum can help premature babies grow smoothly and healthily.

These numerous colostrum benefits are enough to make a case for initiating as early as possible after delivery.

Breastfeeding may seem instinctive, but this doesn’t mean that everyone gets the hang of it immediately. Get comfortable and don’t worry too much if it doesn’t go smoothly at first.

Don’t hesitate to ask for help and seek your health care provider’s advice if it’s too painful or if you or your baby have any other symptoms.

Timely assistance can enable a smooth breastfeeding experience and ensure that your baby isn’t deprived of the superfood colostrum.