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What Is Colostrum?

Colostrum is the first milk a woman produces and it's made from about halfway through pregnancy until up to a week or so after childbirth.

It is rich in protein and has nine times as much protein as mature milk. Colostrum also contains cells, certain amino acids, minerals (including calcium, magnesium, zinc), vitamins A, E, B6 and B12, and epidermal growth factor, and has less sugar than later milk. It also has less fat but is particularly rich in DHA. Most important, colostrum contains large amounts of antibodies, which gives the newborn baby resistance to infection at a time when he or she would otherwise be particularly susceptible.

Formula-fed babies don't get cows' colostrum, yet cows' colostrum is considered so vital for calves that farmers save it for them or even buy it if necessary.

Colostrum often leaks from the nipples in the second half of pregnancy and looks yellow because of its high levels of beta-carotene. It speeds the passage of meconium – the sticky, tar-like early bowel motions - through a baby's gut, reducing the absorption of bile pigments, naturally-occurring substances that might encourage newborn jaundice.

A few days after birth, colostrum becomes more milky and is sometimes called transitional milk. This gradually changes further to become mature milk. The amount of colostrum is not fixed, so expressing it ante-natally doesn't reduce the supply available to the baby. Letting a baby suck frequently and for as long as he or she wants in the first few days not only provides more of this valuable colostrum but also hastens the production of mature milk.

Mature Milk

This contains a fifth of the protein of colostrum but more fat and sugar, and is thinner and whiter looking. A baby grows fastest in the first six months when breast milk's protein level is highest, but the protein content gradually falls during the first year.

Its content varies according to a mother's diet, the frequency of feeds and the age of her baby. Early in a feed from the first breast the milk usually tends to be relatively low in fat and look relatively thin and white or bluish-white. Later in the feed from that breast the milk usually tends to have more fat (up to two or three times as much) and more protein (up to one-and-a-half times as much), making it look thicker and creamy-white, and meaning it has a different ‘mouth-feel' for the baby as it's more viscous and coats the mouth more. The increase in fat content occurs gradually throughout a feed.

The differences in the content, appearance and mouth-feel of milk at the beginning and end of a feed are less dramatic in the second breast, because let-downs of milk from the milk glands while feeding from the first breast mean this let-down milk mixes with the milk already in the ducts and reservoirs. The milk in the ducts and reservoirs at the beginning of a feed is sometimes known as foremilk, and the milk present towards the end of a feed is sometimes called hindmilk.

The changing composition of milk during a feed means a baby who feeds at the first breast as long as he or she wants finishes that side with higher-fat milk. If he then wants to feed from the second breast, the milk will be relatively thinner at first, but not as thin as the first milk from the first breast.

Milk removed from the breast by the strong milking and sucking action of a well latched-on baby tends to be higher in fat than milk that's let down without being milked by a baby or by hand expression. Higher-fat milk stays in the stomach and gut longer, so it satisfies a baby for longer, meaning he's likely to need fewer feeds than a baby who may get the same volume but doesn't suck or milk so strongly. The fat concentration in breast milk is lowest in the early hours of the morning.

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