TLDR: Lactation consultants are an invaluable resource for breastfeeding mothers. They are available for advice during pregnancy, and can help with common breastfeeding challenges like latching, supply, and weaning once your little one is here. There are a variety of different lactation professionals, so understanding what options are out there will help you find the right resource for you.
You might picture breastfeeding as a natural process, something that will come easily because it’s what your body is designed to do. In this vision, you’ll effortlessly latch after birth, your baby will have no trouble going between breast and bottle, and you’ll feed in public like a boss.
Although breastfeeding is the biological way to feed your baby, the reality is that it doesn’t come easy to everyone. Breastfeeding is a learned behavior for both you and your baby. It’s a relationship that takes time and effort to develop, and some women face bigger hurdles than others.
From issues with latching and pumping to maintaining supply and managing infant growth spurts, breastfeeding can be a wild ride. But there are trained professionals whose job it is to help you and your baby thrive at this whole milk-making thing: lactation consultants.
Lactation consultants are professionals who are specially trained to help with breastfeeding. Some research has shown that meeting with an IBCLC (the acronym for International Board Certified Lactation Consultant) can help you initiate and continue breastfeeding1 , as well as overcome breastfeeding barriers2 .
Ob-gyn Dr. Marieme Mbaye notes that having a lactation consultant is a major complement to your postpartum care: “As an ob-gyn, I've seen so many new parents struggle to figure out breastfeeding for themselves and their babies. It doesn't help that you only have a few days (if that) with the hospital's LCs before you're sent home and then weeks pass before we see you for a postpartum visit. That's why I always recommend staying in touch with the hospital's LCs or reaching out to community LCs for support. Their insights can be priceless during this adjustment period.”
Read on to learn more about lactation consultants, when to reach out, and how they can help.
What Is a Lactation Consultant?
There are a few different types of lactation professionals with varying certifications that can help you during your time as a breastfeeding parent. The differences in certification have to do with the level of training. Once you understand the different types, you can decide who you’re most comfortable with.
IBCLC The official certification for a lactation consultant is International Board Certified Lactation Consultant3 , abbreviated as IBCLC. This is the gold standard for lactation training. Professionals who have achieved the IBCLC certification have studied lactation comprehensively, including completion of 90 hours of education, hundreds of hours of clinical lactation support, and a rigorous exam.
Most hospitals have lactation consultants available, but many also work in the community, in clinics, or in private practice. IBCLCs are considered medical professionals—nurses, midwives, nutritionists, and others may have their IBCLC certification.
CLC stands for Certified Lactation Counselor, which is a certification of the Academy of Lactation Policy and Practice4 . People with this training must attend a 45-hour training course and then pass an exam on breastfeeding. They may work in clinics, community settings, or in private practice.
Breastfeeding Peer Counselors Breastfeeding peer counselors are, most often, experienced breastfeeding parents who support other lactating families. They usually have some formal training in breastfeeding and are often employed by community organizations, including WIC. WIC’s website can direct you on how to find a breastfeeding peer counselor in your community (or become one yourself!).
Doulas and Other Support People Other perinatal support people may have training in lactation and provide support as part of their services. Some may be IBCLCs or have other types of certifications, including CLE (certified lactation educator).
Although anyone in these categories can call themselves a “lactation consultant,” the term most often refers to IBCLCs. In general, the differences are about the level of certification each has, so you should ask your consultant about their certification to make sure you’re getting the kind of professional support you want.
When Is the Right Time to Reach Out?
No time is a bad time to reach out to an LC. They can assist with all types of situations related to lactation, including preparing to breastfeed, education, troubleshooting, clinical issues, and more.
Some reasons you might contact a lactation consultant include:
Trouble with latching
Low or slow infant weight gain
Suspected tongue or lip tie
Oversupply of milk
Undersupply of milk
Mastitis or other breast infections
Some parents find that sharing their struggles with an IBCLC can lead to strategies they hadn’t thought of before. An LC can share simple tips on everyday struggles, like keeping your snuggly newborn awake to latch or preventing a distracted 10-month-old from crawling away during a feed.
Even if nursing seems like it’s going well, there’s no harm in checking in with a breastfeeding expert. Carrie Dean, an IBCLC and founder of Mama Bear Dean5 , urges you to reach out so small issues don’t become bigger, saying, “Breastfeeding is natural, but it’s a very intricate dance between two human bodies. One little bump can cascade into big concerns quickly. Having a complete, skilled assessment of the [mother-child] dyad will allow the IBCLC to develop a tailored plan to help keep everyone on their optimal path. Don’t wait to get help!”
No question or issue is too small—seriously. You deserve support as you feed your baby, no matter where you are in the process.
How an LC Can Affect Your Experience
Almost every breastfeeding mother experiences a problem or roadblock at some point. It’s completely normal to have ups and downs. Reaching out for help when you need it can make a huge difference in your overall experience and breastfeeding relationship.
During pregnancy: If possible, meet with a lactation consultant before birth. This can help you prepare for a successful breastfeeding relationship. A consultant can examine your breasts (if you feel comfortable, of course), educate you about latching and normal infant feeding, and provide tips on everything from navigating positioning and pumping to sharing feeding responsibilities with your partner. This is truly one of those times when knowledge = power.
In the early days: It’s very normal to struggle with breastfeeding in the days and weeks after birth—most moms do! Many families will see a lactation consultant while still in the hospital after birth. Still, setting up another appointment with an LC in the first week or so after birth is enormously helpful. Learning what’s normal for newborns—and when or if you should be concerned—will give you powerful peace of mind as a new parent.
Upon returning to work: Setting up the pump, building a pumping schedule, choosing bottles, washing and sanitizing them–when you’re pumping, the list of things to consider is long. If you’re planning to pump and breastfeed after returning to work, meeting with an IBCLC will set you up for success.
Supplementing with formula: If you need or want to feed your baby formula (either exclusively or along with breast milk), an IBCLC can help as you navigate the transition. A lactation consultant can sit with you and make a plan for when and how to feed formula versus breast milk.
Increasing supply: If you find yourself struggling with your milk supply, a visit with an IBCLC is definitely in order. A lactation consultant can work with you to figure out what’s going on and what actions you may need or want to take to make more milk. Sometimes, it’s an easy fix, but a professional can ensure you’re getting the right advice for your situation.
Weaning: Although it can feel like lactation consultants are most helpful at the start of breastfeeding, their perspective and advice can also be wonderful when ending it. Whether you’re transitioning to formula or weaning a toddler, an IBCLC will have ideas and advice that are tailored to you and your little one.
Accessing Lactation Care
There are over 19,000 IBCLCs6 here in the US. Although that sounds like a lot, it may be difficult to access an IBCLC in some areas or communities. If there’s no one you like in your area, don’t worry—lactation care is rapidly becoming more available via telemedicine. You can connect with an IBCLC over Zoom or FaceTime and get the breastfeeding help you need.
Supportive programs like Medela Family7 exist, and are free to sign up for. You can get tons of expert-backed tips, content, and resources right to your inbox, so you can be as informed as possible when it comes to common nursing and pumping challenges.Some insurance companies will cover visits with lactation consultants, while others do not. If your insurance doesn’t cover breastfeeding support, you may also be able to pay for an IBCLC with HSA funds. Many lactation consultants also offer a sliding scale for their services.
Remember that it’s always ok to ask for help. Breastfeeding is really hard for a lot of mothers—and there’s no shame in that. Seeking lactation help not only makes for a better breastfeeding relationship, it also expands and improves your overall emotional support system—a necessity for any new mom.