So You Want to Be a Lactation Consultant
So You Want to Be a Lactation Consultant
We are regularly contacted by people who want to become lactation consultants. In many cases it's a mother who had such a meaningful experience breastfeeding her own baby that she wants to help inspire others. Being a lactation consultant is a very fulfilling job. Every day you get to enter into the sacred space of a postpartum mother who is looking to you for comfort, guidance and reassurance. Of course, like any other job, it definitely has its challenges. One of the first challenges is the frustratingly complex and expensive process of becoming a lactation consultant.
There are many beginner certifications available that are obtained via online education or a 40 hour in person course. These are great ways to get some foundational breastfeeding knowledge and start you on your journey. However, to become an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC) you must have health science college classes similar to what you would take for a nursing degree, 95 hours of lactation education/lectures, and hundreds of clinical hours supporting breastfeeding families. After these requirements are met, aspiring lactation consultants will be eligible to sit the board exam for IBCLC. If you are already working as a healthcare professional in a related field (for example, an RN on a labor and delivery floor or a pediatrician's office) you may be able to complete the process in as little as a year. However, if you are currently in an unrelated field it often takes 3 or more years to fulfill the prerequisites to sitting the exam. You may have to piece together the requirements on your own as there are few all inclusive university based programs available.
Health Science Classes - These college classes include biology, anatomy & physiology, infant and child growth and development, introduction to clinical research, nutrition, psychology, and sociology, among others. See this guide to review the requirements. Note: there is no time limit on when these classes were taken, as long as they are completed before applying for the IBCLC exam. Because of this, completing the health science classes is a great place to start.
Lactation Education Hours - We recommend the Certified Lactation Counselor Course, GOLD Lactation Academy and the Lactation Education Resources courses to begin gathering your lactation specific education hours. Note: these lactation education hours must be completed within the 5 years preceding the exam application. You'll need 95 hours covering the required topics so be sure to plan accordingly.
Clinical Hours - This hands on experience can be gained in a mentorship situation (500 hours required), a university based program (300 hours required), or a various other volunteer and clinical settings where there is accountability for time logged working with breastfeeding families (1000 hours required). (Note: these clinical hours must be completed within the 5 years preceding the exam application.) Gaining clinical hours is the most difficult part of the process for most people, as there are few contexts and opportunities to gain appropriate clinical experience. Some hospitals offer internships, so this is the best place to check first unless you can go through a university based program below. Another common route for clinical experience is through a volunteer organization such as becoming a La Leche League leader, BreastfeedingUSA leader, or WIC peer counselor. Gaining clinical hours the biggest barrier to becoming an IBCLC. There are so many people who want to become IBCLCs but very few mentors and clinical programs available. There may be 20 applicants for every 1 opportunity to earn clinical hours; as a result most people who want to become an IBCLC will never be able to get past this critical step in the process. Until more university programs make becoming a lactation consultant a standard degree program the way obtaining a RN is, we don't expect this to change much, unfortunately.
The Exam - This four hour proctored board exam is offered twice a year and covers a wide variety of topics including but not limited to human lactation. Before sitting the exam, you'll need to apply a few months in advance and verify you've completed all the requirements above.
University Based Programs
University based programs usually combine the health science classes, lactation education classes, and hands on clinical experience into one package. We hope someday that every major university will offer a college degree program that includes the necessary clinical components. Some universities in our area offer lactation programs, but even they have had difficulty setting up the clinical experience portion of the program, so be sure to check with the relevant department for specifics on what their program will include. Check out Johnson C Smith University in Charlotte, Winthrop University in Rock Hill, University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, and North Carolina Agricultural & Technical State University in Greensboro.
Our best advice is not to get too far down the journey of becoming an IBCLC without a really solid plan for your clinical hours. We are no longer offering internships at Lake Norman Breastfeeding Solutions but we hope you can find a pathway that allows you to achieve your dreams.