Should I Express My Milk Before My Baby Arrives?

pregnant person sitting in bed holding their belly

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If you are an expectant parent, you may have heard of harvesting colostrum, or expressing your breastmilk before your baby is born. This idea may have particular appeal to you if you have a history of low milk supply, or if you or your baby have certain medical conditions that can make breastfeeding more difficult. Perhaps you simply want some assurance that you will have extra milk available during the first days postpartum.

Whatever the case, you wonder if harvesting colostrum is something that’s right for you, what the benefits may be, and how to go about doing it. We reached out to experts to break down the ins and out of expressing milk before your baby arrives.

What Is Colostrum?

If you end up expressing your milk before your baby is born, you will be expressing colostrum, which is the milk your body makes during pregnancy and the first few days postpartum. Colostrum production begins at about 12-16 weeks, but many parents don’t see it till about halfway through pregnancy, or later. It is the first milk your baby will receive the first two or three days after birth before your mature milk comes in.

Colostrum has a yellow-orange color and is sometimes referred to as “liquid gold.” Though it is low in volume, it is rich in immunity and provides a strong, healthy start for your baby. Unlike mature milk, colostrum is higher in protein than carbohydrates or fat. It also has high amounts of immunoglobulin A (IgA), which can protect your baby from illness. Colostrum has properties that protect your baby’s gut and helps create a balanced microbiome.

Why Would Someone Want to Express Breastmilk Before Delivery?

First, it should be noted that harvesting your milk is not a requirement. “It is not necessary to start expressing colostrum prior to giving birth,” explains Emily Huffstetler, MD, an OB/GYN at Jefferson Obstetrics, and board member and advisor to Share the Drop.

According to Dr. Huffstetler, there are two main reasons why birthing parents may want to do this. “Someone would choose to express breast milk prior to birth if they wanted to become familiar with hand expression or if they wanted to store colostrum before delivery,” she describes.

Suzanne Juel, IBCLC, founder and managing director of Bayou City Breastfeeding, says the most common explanations for harvesting breastmilk include underlying medical conditions like diabetes or PCOS, both of which may put you at risk for delayed milk production or inadequate supply. She also sees this practice among parents who have gestational diabetes and are concerned about their baby potentially needing formula supplements because of low blood sugar after birth.

Other parents just want to reduce the risk of early supplementation with formula, should they run into any issues, says Juel. Finally, some parents express their milk during pregnancy to prepare for breastfeeding. “An expectant parent may want to become comfortable and proficient with hand expression, or may just want to express prenatally to get comfortable with handling their breasts,” Juel describes.

As outlined by National Health Service (NHS) in the U.K., other reasons an expectant parent might want to harvest breastmilk include medical conditions that might affect milk supply, such as breast hypoplasia (where the breast tissue isn’t fully developed) or a history of breast surgeries. Medical conditions in babies that may make breastfeeding more challenging, such as cleft palate, Down syndrome, heart conditions, and being small for gestational age, are also reasons that a parent might choose to harvest their milk, according to NHS.

All parents are different and have unique reasons for expressing milk before birth. Questions about whether this practice is right for you can be addressed with your OB/GYN, midwife, or healthcare provider.

When Can I Start Expressing Breastmilk?

It’s best not to start expressing your milk too early in pregnancy, as breast stimulation can cause uterine contractions. “If someone chooses to express breast milk, I don't recommend starting prior to 37 weeks,” Dr. Huffstetler says. “There is a concern that expressing breast milk can release oxytocin, which would lead to preterm labor if started early.”

The timing and safety of harvesting breastmilk is something best discussed with your healthcare provider. Although hand expression in the last weeks of pregnancy may be appropriate for low-risk parents, for people who have high risk factors—such as placenta previa, breech presentation, or a prolapsed umbilical cord—any behavior that has the potential to induce labor can potentially be problematic.

How to Express Breastmilk Before Delivery

When it comes to expressing colostrum prior to birth, most experts recommend using hand expression rather than an electric breast pump. “Because colostrum is thick and sticky, it is often difficult to get much when using an electric pump,” says Juel. “In addition, using the electric pump during pregnancy is more likely to cause nipple soreness.” Juel says when hand expression is done correctly, it shouldn’t be painful.

Some people are intimidated by the idea of expressing their milk by hand. But it’s really quite simple. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) offers some straightforward tips for making hand expression work for you.

Getting Ready

First, wash your hands thoroughly. Then make sure you have a container, such as an empty milk bottle, to collect the milk you express. Massaging your breasts a little beforehand is a good way to get your breasts ready for expression.

How to Express

Position your fingers in a “C” shape around your areola. Next, gently press your fingers toward your chest wall. Finally, compress your two fingers together. Continue these two actions—pressing and compressing—until you are done.

Where to Go From Here

Not sure if you are doing it right? If you see milk droplets appearing, you are on track! All bodies are different and sometimes you have to try slightly different finger positions until you find the sweet spot that gets the milk flowing. If you have any difficulty with hand expression, consider connecting with a breastfeeding support counselor or lactation consultant.

How to Store Colostrum

Dr. Huffstetler recommends storing colostrum in small containers. “Colostrum can be stored in small oral syringes (usually the quantity is small),” she says. “I recommend labeling the syringes, dating them, and freezing them.”

Juel agrees that small syringes are the way to go when it comes to storing colostrum, and recommends 3-10ml syringes with caps. You can store your colostrum in the fridge for up to four days, she says, and the syringes can be frozen as well. Juel recommends storing the colostrum in the back of the freezer, and using it within six to 12 months, as per CDC guidelines.

What to Do With Your Harvested Colostrum

If you've harvested your colostrum, you can bring it to the hospital or birthing center with you, says Juel. She says if you transport the syringes in a cooler with ice packs, they will likely still be frozen when you arrive. Juel recommends asking staff at your facility to store your colostrum in the freezer if possible. If that’s not doable, and the colostrum thaws, just make sure to use it within 24 hours.

If your baby latches on and gets milk from you, you may not need to use your colostrum. But if for any reason you need to supplement, you might be able to feed expressed colostrum to your baby instead of formula. You may also want to use harvested colostrum for a baby who is reluctant to feed for whatever reason.

“You can use this colostrum to entice your baby to feed at the breast by dripping a little on your nipple,” Juel offers. “It can be fed directly from the syringe, either while the baby is feeding at the breast or afterward, using a finger-feeding technique.”

A Word From Verywell

Harvesting colostrum is not right for everyone, and it is not necessary for many parents. Still, for any parent who wants a little confidence that milk will be available right after birth in case anything goes wrong, expressing colostrum before delivery can be very reassuring. This technique may also be a good idea for anyone with a condition that may make breastfeeding more challenging at first. As always, it’s highly recommended that you speak to your healthcare provider before engaging in this practice.

9 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. National Health Service. Collecting your colostrum while you are pregnant.

  2. Bryant J, Thistle J. Anatomy, Colostrum. In:StatPearls. StatPearls Publishing. 2022.

  3. Riddle SW, Nommsen-Rivers LA. A Case Control Study of Diabetes During Pregnancy and Low Milk Supply. Breastfeeding Medicine. 2016;11(2):80–85. doi:10.1089/bfm.2015.0120

  4. National Library of Medicine. Infant of diabetic mother.

  5. National Health Service. Collecting your colostrum while you are pregnant.

  6. Takahata K, Horiuchi S, Tadokoro Y, et al. Effects of breast stimulation for spontaneous onset of labor on salivary oxytocin levels in low-risk pregnant women: A feasibility study. PLoS One. 2017;13(2):e0192757. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0192757

  7. American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Labor Induction.

  8. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Hand Expression.

  9. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Proper Storage and Preparation of Breast Milk.

By Wendy Wisner
Wendy Wisner is a lactation consultant and writer covering maternal/child health, parenting, general health and wellness, and mental health. She has worked with breastfeeding parents for over a decade, and is a mom to two boys.