Colostrum: It's Yellow and Pure Gold!

by Susan Smallwood

newborn nursingIt is not uncommon to hear a mother nursing a sick newborn or re-lactating for a sick child to refer to her colostrum (or pre-milk in the case of a re-lactating or adoptive breastfeeding mother) as "liquid gold." But why do they refer to it as such? It is yellow but that cannot be the only similarities between gold and colostrum.

In fact, the reference is made because it is deemed so precious that it can be compared to gold just for its value to the infant.

Colostrum is very rich in proteins and minerals. It is also loaded with antibodies to aid the infant's immune system. There is not a lot in volume but that serves an important role as well. The low volume keeps baby's stomach somewhat empty causing him to want to nurse more frequently. Frequent nursing triggers the breasts to produce mature milk in sufficient quantities.

SIgA, one of the most common immunoglobulins (antibodies), is present in very high amounts in colostrum. Because there is not a lot of colostrum the potency is up to 5 mg. per ml. Once the mother's milk comes in it decreases to 1 mg. per ml, but due to the volume of milk being produced the baby gets more sIgA the more he nurses. The antibodies present in colostrum protect the infant from many ailments. In fact, a study published at Pub Med showed that there were enough antibodies harvested from colostrum to significantly protect infants from E. Coli in Brazil. As colostrum is digested it coats the newborns digestive tract, forming a barrier to invasive bacteria.

As an added benefit, colostrum acts as a laxative helping the baby pass meconium. Because it is a natural laxative it aids in reducing billirubin levels and prevents jaundice in the infant. The Breastfeeding Answer Book states that there is a direct correlation between the frequency that the newborn nursed and their billirubin levels. Those infants who nursed 9-11 times in the first 24 hours did NOT show any exaggerated jaundice on day six when tested.

"But I plan on bottle-feeding when I get home. Why should I bother nursing while in the hospital?"

Just the fact that it helps the baby pass their first stools and alleviates jaundice should be enough to consider giving it a try. The antibodies she will receive are priceless as no formula can replicate it and since newborns are so vulnerable it is worth giving the effort even if only for a few days.

Another reason to try is that it helps balance glucose levels in a newborn. This is extremely important in mothers who are gestational, type 1 or type 2 diabetic. These babies tend to be born with relatively low glucose levels and can be hypoglycemic. The more often they nurse the better their glucose levels remain.

But besides the benefits to the baby, nursing those first few days is extremely beneficial to the mother as well. A woman's body releases oxytocin when she nurses. This hormone causes the uterus to contract and prevents hemorrhaging. The sooner she nurses and the more frequently she does, the lower her chances of hemorrhage even if she has had a cesarean.

In a normal vaginal birth, if the baby has been place on the mother's abdomen, she will "crawl" forward unaided and root and search out the breast on her own. This crawling motion massages the uterus aiding in its return to normal size. Once again letting nature take it's course helps prevent hemorrhaging in the mother.

Even if a mother plans on bottle-feeding when she gets home, it is still beneficial to breastfeed while in the hospital to boost the baby's immune system and to help the mother heal quicker after delivery. But a non-scientific reason is that not many people say they wish they had never breastfed.

On the other hand, there are many moms that have in turn said they wish they had at least tried. The mother may find herself pleasantly surprised and want to continue. If not she can pride herself that she provided a huge boost to her baby's immune system and digestive tract development.