The mantra “fed is best,” isn’t only appropriate because it reminds us that the mother’s physical and mental health are just as important as the baby, but also because the research as to how beneficial breast milk is, isn’t all the compelling, especially when it comes to the long-term benefits. There is, however, more compelling evidence that colostrum, the first type of milk produced by the mother, is beneficial.
“Colostrum is a thick honey-like substance that is produced by the breasts before baby’s birth and during the first few days postpartum,” says Andrea Syms-Brown, IBCLC, founder of Baby in the Family. “Its color can range anywhere from clear to slightly yellow or orange (high in beta carotene) packed with immunological factors, carbohydrates, fats and minerals. Colostrum has high levels of antibodies, the disease fighting proteins produced by the immune system to destroy bacteria, fungi, parasites and viruses.”
This milk is typically made beginning in the third trimester. “The transition away from colostrum happens the moment the placenta leaves the mother’s body as the hormone producing colostrum, progesterone, is produced primarily by the placenta,” says Ashley Georgakopoulos, IBCLC and Motif Medical lactation director.
The body doesn’t produce much colostrum, but it’s enough to feed a newborn for the first 2-3 days. Remember, your newborn’s stomach is only about the size of a pea! “The low volume, highly nutritious and protective nature of colostrum is perfectly designed for babies until copious milk production begins 2-7 days after baby’s birth,” says Sims-Brown. “Colostrum delivers the protective immunological factors that baby needs right at birth. Mother’s body creates antibodies to the specific pathogens that she encounters in her environment and passes those antibodies to baby in her colostrum.”
As mentioned, however, whether a conscious choice or something out of a mother’s control, breastfeeding isn’t for everyone. It’s important to be prepared that with formula fed babies diarrhea is often a common side, which can lead to dehydration if not closely monitored. “Formula doesn’t contain the enzymes found in colostrum and often contains cow’s milk proteins, such as casein, which is quite hard to break down in the human stomach. Soy-based formulas also contain traces of casein,” says Georgakopoulos.
If the choice is not to breastfeed, it’s best to avoid pumping to remove colostrum or milk as this triggers and encourages milk production. “Cool damp cloth compresses, ice packs and cabbage leaves are commonly and effectively applied to breasts to help soothe and reduce some of the swelling and discomfort associated with engorgement,” says Syms-Brown. For women who don’t plan on breastfeeding, but do want to give their baby colostrum, Syms-Brown notes that pain or complications can be reduced by hand or machine expressing colostrum then quickly applying ice packs or cabbage leaves once breasts begin to become engorged.
Whatever your scenario may be, it’s important to bear in mind that some mothers and babies need more help than others, and that’s totally fine. If you’re having any challenges getting yourself and baby into a comfortable position, seek the support and guidance of an IBCLC.