Breastfeeding is one of the most natural things humans do, but that doesn't mean it always comes easily. Some women have trouble breastfeeding their children for various reasons. Lactation consultants provide the coaching and support new mothers need to overcome those difficulties. Nurses often choose to become certified as lactation consultants, especially if they work in obstetrics or gynecology.
Because mother's milk is the best source of nutrients for newborns, medical experts recommend breastfeeding whenever possible to ensure infants develop properly. It's also a pragmatic choice. A 2011 report by the U.S. Surgeon General estimated that if 90 percent of mothers breastfeed for the first six months of their babies' lives, it would trim $13 billion from the country's healthcare costs. Lactation consultants help new mothers with any medical or practical obstacles they face while trying to breastfeed.
Lactation consultants often begin their duties before birth, or even before conception. Hospitals and prenatal training courses frequently organize group sessions with lactation consultants before pregnancy or in its early stages so future mothers know what to expect and how to prepare. Individual patients might also seek out a lactation consultant if they have a family history of difficulty with breastfeeding. Some hospitals also routinely have a lactation consultant visit with each new mother to help mother and infant establish a comfortable feeding-time routine. Often, a small amount of education and encouragement is all that's needed.
Some new mothers have inadequate milk or experience unusual levels of discomfort when they attempt to breastfeed. Lactation consultants can help them work through these problems in conjunction with the patient's doctor and other caregivers. If the problems aren't medical but practical, such as a need for the mother to return to work, the consultant can demonstrate how to express milk and store it in bottles for later feedings. They can also help new mothers learn to feed their infants unobtrusively, if feeding-friendly locations are unavailable. Often they'll refer new mothers to peer-counseling organizations, such as the La Leche League, for further support.
To become certified as a lactation consultant, you need three basic prerequisites. One is an education in the health sciences, which you can get through training and certification as a nurse. The second is lactation-specific clinical experience, such as working in gynecological or obstetric nursing. The third prerequisite is at least 90 hours of formal education in breastfeeding and lactation. You can earn those through a college-level program in the subject, or through a series of continuing education credits. If you meet those requirements you can take the certification exam offered by the International Board of Lactation Consultant Examiners, and become an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant, or IBCLC.
- American Medical Association: Health Care Careers Directory -- Lactation Consultant
- International Board of Lactation Consultant Examiners: What is an IBCLC?
- International Board of Lactation Consultant Examiners: Preparing for IBCLC Certification
- Hand to Hold: What Does a Lactation Consultant Do?
- Public Health Reports: Public Health in Action -- Give Mothers Support for Breastfeeding; Regina M. Benjamin, MD, MBA, VADM, U.S. Surgeon General
Fred Decker is a trained chef and certified food-safety trainer. Decker wrote for the Saint John, New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal, and has been published in Canada's Hospitality and Foodservice magazine. He's held positions selling computers, insurance and mutual funds, and was educated at Memorial University of Newfoundland and the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology.