What Is Colostrum?

Mother breastfeeding newborn in the hospital
Colostrum is the first breast milk and your baby's first meal.

Cristian Baitg / Getty Images

What Is Colostrum?

Colostrum is the first milk your baby gets when you start breastfeeding. This first stage of breast milk production begins during pregnancy and lasts for several days after the birth of your baby. Colostrum is loaded with nutrients and immunity-boosting compounds to fuel and support your baby in their first few days of life.

Why It's Important

Your body makes colostrum before it starts producing transitional breast milk (the second stage of breast milk and a combination of colostrum and mature milk), and mature breast milk (the final stage of breast milk). The initial drops of colostrum are what your baby gets the first time you put them to your breast to feed.

In the first 24 hours after your baby is born, you will produce—on average—a little over 2 tablespoons or 1 ounce (30 milliliters). On the second and third day, you will make approximately 2 ounces (60 milliliters) of colostrum. Your transitional breast milk will begin to come in around the third day, at which time you will begin making much more breast milk.

Functions of Colostrum

Colostrum may only come in small amounts, but it's packed full of concentrated nutrition. It's sometimes called "liquid gold" because it contains everything that your baby needs in the first few days of life.

Your colostrum is also made up of components that protect your newborn and help them fight off infection, illness, and disease. Other key facts about colostrum nutrition include:

  • Colostrum is higher in protein and lower in fat and sugar compared to transitional and mature breast milk, making it easier to digest and nutrient-packed.
  • Colostrum is full of antibodies, white blood cells, and other immune properties—it functions like your child's first immunization.
  • The high levels of secretory immunoglobulin A (SIgA) found in colostrum protect your baby's GI tract and helps to kill off viruses and bacteria.
  • Colostrum is a natural laxative. It helps your infant move their bowels and get rid of the meconium—the tar-like poop that collects in the bowels before your baby is born. Since meconium contains bilirubin, the laxative effect of colostrum helps to prevent newborn jaundice.

What to Look For

Colostrum might look clear, but it's often a golden-yellow or light orange color because it contains high levels of beta-carotene. Colostrum also tends to be thicker than transitional and mature breast milk. 

Occasionally, blood from inside the milk ducts can make its way into the colostrum. Colostrum mixed with blood can look red, pink, brown, or rust-colored. While potentially alarming to see, a bit of blood in the colostrum is not harmful or cause for concern.

A small amount of blood in your breast milk is normal and commonly caused by what is called rusty pipe syndrome. However, it's always best to talk to your doctor if you notice a bloody or discolored discharge from your nipples.

How Long It Lasts

Your body begins to make breast milk long before your baby is born. Colostrum production can start as early as the beginning of the second trimester of pregnancy.

If you notice small drops of clear or yellow fluid leaking from your breasts or staining your bra while you're pregnant, that's colostrum.

The colostrum phase of breast milk production lasts until the transitional stage begins (between the second and fifth days after birth). The transitional phase of breast milk production starts when your milk comes in. This second stage of milk contains a mixture of colostrum and mature breast milk.

Even though it's no longer officially called the colostrum phase, colostrum will continue to be present in your breast milk. Small traces of colostrum can still be found in your breast milk for about six weeks. During this time, you'll see a big increase in the amount of breast milk that you're making, which sometimes results in breast engorgement.

Tips for Early Breastfeeding

The first few days of breastfeeding can be challenging for many new moms. Below are tips to help you get started.

Keep Nursing

Even though you will only make a small amount of colostrum, you should still breastfeed your baby as often as possible during this stage. Your newborn's stomach is tiny, and a little bit of colostrum is all they need for the first few days.

Do not wait until your breast milk comes in to start breastfeeding—the more you breastfeed your baby colostrum, the quicker (and more abundantly) your milk supply will come in.

Colostrum offers big health benefits for your baby, but they can only take in small amounts at a time. So they need many short nursing sessions per day to get what they need. Plus, frequent nursing helps to establish your breastfeeding technique and routine. Breastfeeding regularly during the colostrum stage also prepares your body to produce a healthy supply of breast milk.

Seek Help if Needed

If you are struggling with breastfeeding or just aren't exactly sure how to do it, seek out help. Breastfeeding guidance can be found through numerous sources, including from your obstetrician, nurses in the labor and delivery ward, doulas, midwives, lactation consultants, and friends and family who have experience with nursing.

How Lactation Support Helps

Often, small, simple tweaks in how you breastfeed, including proper latch, positioning of the baby, and timing, can make a world of difference in your milk supply, comfort, and overall nursing success and satisfaction.

Supplements Aren't Needed

While you're only making 1 to 2 ounces of colostrum a day, rest assured that your infant is getting enough breast milk during the first few days. In the majority of cases, they don't need formula. In general, your baby doesn't need any more than what you're making.

If your baby is born healthy and full-term, you won't need to supplement with infant formula as long as you are routinely breastfeeding during the colostrum stage. However, supplementation might be recommended if your baby is premature or has certain health issues, or if you experience a delay in the production of breast milk.

A Word From Verywell

Getting the hang of nursing can feel daunting, but know that just because it's the "natural" way to feed your baby doesn't mean it's easy or completely instinctual. That said, breastfeeding does usually get much easier after the initial phase, and its benefits to your baby are immense. The key is simply to get started and find help as needed.

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Article Sources
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