Lactation consultants are experts in breastfeeding and human lactation who help mothers master the art of breasfeeding. Lactation consultants provide one-on-one support as well as educate the public at large about the benefits of breastfeeding. Due to breastfeeding's crucial role in cementing the bond between mothers and their babies, many hospitals and birthing centers now keep lactation consultants on their staff to consult with mothers within hours of birth.
Courses of study certifying lactation consultants vary greatly and include online coursework, independent study and traditional classrooms. All consultants must complete a minimum of 90 hours before appearing for an exam administered by the IBLCE. Courses of study including human anatomy, physiology, infant growth and development, sociology, nutrition and psychology. Some programs are short, while others require four years. The International Board of Lactation consultant Examiners (IBLCE) develops, controls, and monitors the examination and certification programs. In the United States, licensing is mandatory, and all lactation consultants must register and possess a certificate from the IBLCE. Most registered consultants are female, but some may be male.
Many individuals who work in the health profession may hold dual certification. Nurses, especially those who work in maternal care, obstetricians, family doctors, doulas and midwives may also become certified lactation consultants.
Lactation consultants believe that breastfeeding should be a positive experience for mothers and their babies. However, they also realize that it can be an initially difficult and frustrating experience. With more and more women opting to breastfeed, lactation consultants exist as an excellent resource to help women and babies achieve the maximum benefits from breastfeeding.
Many lactation consultants offer prenatal counseling. Since milk formation begins before birth, this counseling helps a woman understand the overall process. Consultants may offer nutrition suggestions as what a woman eats directly affects the quality of her milk. Prenatal care focuses on a mother’s diet and lifestyle to improve the nutritional value of her breast milk. Some counseling sessions may also include videos sharing different breastfeeding techniques and positions, what to expect during childbirth, the advantages of breastfeeding, understanding a baby’s nutritional requirements and techniques for maintaining a strong milk supply. The more confident a woman is regarding her ability to breastfeed, the more likely the process will go smoothly. A consultant can help a woman achieve this confidence and bond strongly with her newborn. Mastering breastfeeding also reduces the risk of postpartum depression.
The first few hours after birth are crucial for the baby and mother to bond. Several studies report that breastfeeding within one hour of birth has lasting, positive implications on the physical and psychological growth of a baby. Lactation consultants can make this first experience more enjoyable and successful for everyone involved. If certain issues arise during breastfeeding, such as blocked ducts or breast refusal, a woman can discuss these issues with an expert over the phone or in person. Lactation consultants can also refer women to support groups with other breastfeeding mothers.
A woman should see a lactation consultant if:
As with any health care professional, a woman should always check references. Asking other mothers for recommendations is a great way to find an experienced, knowledgeable consultant. Many hospitals and health care organizations offer a lactation consultant free of charge, but one should always check this policy.
Kathryn is a baby-wearing, cloth diapering, DIY mom to her quickly growing and pretty cute toddler. When she isn't researching and writing about natural approaches to pregnancy and parenting, she's acting out her favorite children's books or singing off-key made-up songs.