How do I become a lactation consultant?

by Anne Smith, IBCLC

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Question: My daughter is now 19 months old and still nursing all the time. I don’t have any plans to stop nursing her at the moment, especially since she doesn’t seem to have any plans to wean herself any time soon! Anyway, my question is more geared towards becoming a lactation consultant. I’ve given it a lot of thought over the past few years but never knew where to get started, as where I live, breastfeeding is just starting to get big. I’ve been able to help quite a few friends with their questions about nursing and feel like I might make a pretty good IBCLC upon proper training. Where do I start? Once I figure out if this is what I want to do, how would I go about finding work?

Answer: IBCLCs (International Board Certified Lactation Consultants) are allied health care providers who are trained to prevent, recognize, and solve breastfeeding problems and to focus exclusively on the needs of the nursing mother and infant. Lactation consulting is a really good field to enter because more and more hospitals and doctor’s offices are hiring lactation consultants each year. The IBCLC designation is really the only professional certification that counts as far as hospitals are concerned. Anyone can call  themselves a “breastfeeding consultant” or a “lactation specialist,” sometimes after taking a workshop or two, but to become an IBCLC requires a lot of hard work, long hours, and very specialized training.

Up until 1985, there was no professional certification for lactation specialists. In that year, IBLCE (International Board of  Lactation Consultant Examiners) developed a formal process to establish minimum standards for professional competence and to certify qualified individuals as IBCLCs. The process involves many thousands of hours of clinical experience related to breastfeeding, a number of hours of credits obtained by attending breastfeeding workshops, and passing a rigorous all day exam that is administered once a year at different sites around the world. ILCA keeps making the requirements harder and harder each year.

It’s really difficult to get enough clinical hours to even take the exam unless you are already a nurse working in a hospital or doctor’s office. Most hospitals prefer to hire IBCLCs who are also RNs, because they can do extra things like administering medications and doing postpartum care in addition to lactation related activities. Almost all IBCLCs are women, and the majority of them are also nurses. Beginning in 2003, an applicant for the IBCLC exam must document completion of courses in anatomy and physiology, sociology, psychology or counseling, child development, nutrition, and medical terminology and, in the three years immediately preceding the exam, a minimum of 45 documented clock hours of education in lactation reflecting the exam blueprint.

To find out more about becoming a lactation consultant, go to the ILCA (International Lactation Consultant Association) website ( www.ilca.org). It is a very rewarding profession, but currently it is very difficult to earn your certification unless you are already a health care professional in a field related to maternal child nursing.

I didn’t into the ‘breastfeeding business’ for the money (I don’t know of any rich Lactation Consultants) but because I loved nursing my babies so much and wanted to help others experience the same joy. In the first few years after the exam was developed, ILCA gave 500 hours credit for each year that applicants were active La Leche League Leaders. That’s how I met the requirements for clinical hours, because I wasn’t a nurse and had never worked in a hospital or doctor’s office. As time went by, the focus of lactation consulting became more and more hospital based, and ILCA eliminated this pathway for certification.

For mothers who aren’t nurses, but have breastfed their babies and want to experience the rewards of helping other nursing mothers, becoming a La Leche League Leader is an option to consider. There is no financial compensation, but thousands of dedicated volunteers around the world have the satisfaction of knowing that they are providing much needed support to mothers and babies, and you can’t put a price on that. For more information on becoming a La Leche League Leader, visit
lalecheleague.org
.

Anne Smith, IBCLC
Breastfeeding Basics

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