Expectant mothers in the Western Isles are being supported to express colostrum - or first milk - before their babies are born, both to get used to the idea and to build up a reserve of the vital nutrient in case of post-birth difficulties.
Colostrum is the first form of milk and mothers begin to generate colostrum just prior to giving birth. Colostrum has an especially high amount of bioactive compounds compared to mature milk to give the newborn the best possible start to life. It contains antibodies to protect the newborn against disease and infection, and immune and growth factors and other bioactives that help to activate a newborn’s immune system. Colostrum also has a mild laxative effect, which helps get the new digestive system working.
The World Health Organization now recommends continued breastfeeding along with appropriate complementary foods for at least the first two years of a child’s life.
NHS Western Isles say they have recently incorporated what is officially called "antenatal colostrum harvesting" into their service.
They say: "With very few exceptions, most women can be given support to start expressing colostrum from 36 weeks of pregnancy. This will help gain confidence and knowledge about the skill of expressing, which can help in the early days of breastfeeding.
"This can be particularly useful if the baby is at an increased risk of low blood sugar in the first few hours after birth, as there will be a supply of colostrum that can be used instead of introducing formula milk.
"The NHS Western Isles Maternity Department can supply packs made up with syringes and label stickers, and we have a breastmilk storage fridge and freezer ready for the mum to bring her stock of colostrum to the ward for when she is an inpatient. She may not need to use any colostrum in the early days: nothing goes to waste, it can be taken back home to use at a later date.
"This project is still in its early stages, beginning at the end of last year so it’s too soon for reliable data, but so far maternity staff are noticing a positive difference.
"When a mum brings her supply of colostrum in with her, breastfeeding gets off to a good start. These mums have been more relaxed and confident in what they are doing.
"When babies have had low blood sugars identified, the pressure to feed when baby might be reluctant is less, as a syringe of colostrum can be all that is needed to maintain a healthy blood sugar."
Charlotte Rowe explains: “I began harvesting colostrum at 36 weeks. I found the packs and the information very simple and clear to follow. I expressed daily from 36-38 weeks when my baby was born by induction. I harvested between 40-50mls of colostrum in that time.
"During that time I had COVID and continued to express to give myself a supply of COVID antibody colostrum should we face another COVID scare after baby’s arrival. It gave me peace of mind knowing I had the colostrum there in case I struggled to feed after birth or in case either of us faced any health challenges postnatally.
"After delivery I was able to breastfeed my baby but I was also topped up with colostrum to ensure he was getting a good volume while we were in hospital. I also kept some in the freezer to use once we reach the teething stage. I would definitely recommend women who would like to breastfeed to consider harvesting colostrum.”