There are three phases of breast milk:
- Colostrum. This is the first milk produced by the breast from 36weeks of pregnancy until right after birth. It is thick, yellow-ish, and rich in nutrients your baby needs in the first few hours and days.
- Transitional milk. This is when mature breast milk starts to replace colostrum. This usually happens in your first week at home after giving birth.
- Mature milk. Mature milk looks thinner than colostrum but is still full of nutrients for baby. It starts about 10-15 days after birth. Mature milk will continue to change automatically in line with your baby's needs.
Reasons to express
There can be many benefits from expressing, both before and after giving birth. Colostrum/breastmilk is enriched with antibodies and is specifically designed by your body to be able to give your baby all it needs in their initial stage of life.
- Before your baby is born (colostrum harvesting) – if you have been advised that your baby may need extra milk once born. This can be expressed and stored from 36 weeks into your pregnancy.
- First days after giving birth (colostrum) – if your baby is sleepy or to help them attach and feed.
- Returning to work/study, or planning a night out (transitional/mature milk) - to help relieve pressure during long periods between feeds, if your breasts feel uncomfortably full (engorged)
- Your partner is going to help feed your baby (transitional/mature milk)
Breastmilk can be expressed by hand in the earlier stages, then by manual/electric pump as you progress. As with breastfeeding, the more you practice the easier it gets. We recommend that you express once or twice a day from 36weeks into your pregnancy.
These tips may help:
- Before you start, wash your hands with soap and warm water.
- Make sure you are comfortable and relaxed.
- Have something ready to collect the milk in (a sterilised syringe/pot/spoon)
- Gently massage your breasts before expressing.
- Cup your breast with one hand then, with your other hand, form a "C" shape with your forefinger and thumb.
- Squeeze gently, keeping your finger and thumb a few centimetres away from your nipple, just outside the darker area around it (areola). Do not squeeze the nipple itself as you could make it sore. This should not hurt.
- Release the pressure, then repeat, building up a rhythm. Try not to slide your fingers over the skin.
- Drops should start to appear. If no drops appear, try moving your finger and thumb slightly, but still avoid squeezing the darker area near your nipple.
- Don't forget swap to the other breast once you have collected drops from the first.
Storing your harvested colostrum
Colostrum can be stored in syringes, pots or spoons (all of which need to be sterilized before use). You can buy syringes, or you can ask your community midwife who can provide these for you.
Once you have some harvested colostrum, make sure that you label your container with the date of expression and your full name. This will help you keep track of expiring milk and is also useful for any supply being taken into hospital for when you give birth. Make sure that you freeze your harvested colostrum on the same day that it has been expressed. Colostrum can last for up to 6 months when frozen.
Bringing your harvested colostrum to the hospital/birthing centre
Transfer your harvested colostrum from your home freezer into a cool bag on the day that you come into hospital to give birth. Our midwives can then put this into the department's freezer for you, to keep it safe and ready for if/when it is needed.
If by the time you are discharged from hospital you have not used any/all of your harvested colostrum, please ask your midwives to return it to you so that you can put it straight back into your freezer at home.
You can attend one of the Infant Feeding Team's classes for detailed demonstrations on hand expression techniques and harvesting colostrum.
You can also watch this helpful video by Unicef UK Baby Friendly Initiative: