You may be surprised to know all the ways lactation consultants can help - from before you give birth to when you're ready to wean. We share these critical points with you, plus, share how to access this supportive care.
You might picture breastfeeding as a natural process, something that will come easily because it’s what your body is designed to do. 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 biologically normal way to feed babies, the reality is that it doesn’t come easy to everyone. Breastfeeding is a learned behavior for both you and your baby, 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 is to help you and your baby thrive at this whole milk-making thing.
Lactation consultants are professionals specially trained in the management of breastfeeding. Some research has shown that meeting with an IBCLC (commonly referred to as a lactation consultant) can help you initiate and continue breastfeeding, as well as overcome barriers.
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. It’s important to know what type of consultant is best for you and what you feel most comfortable with.
The official certification for a lactation consultant is International Board Certified Lactation Consultant, 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 Practice. People with this training have attended a 45 hour training course and then passed a breastfeeding exam. 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.
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 can call themselves a “lactation consultant,” the term most often refers to IBCLCs.
Breastfeeding (or Pumping) Help: When is the Right Time to Reach Out to a Lactation Consultant?
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:
- Nipple pain
- 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
- Managing pumping
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 ten-month-old from crawling away during a feed.
Even if nursing seems like it’s going well, there is no harm in checking in with a breastfeeding expert. No question or issue is too small—seriously. You deserve support as you feed your baby, no matter where you are on the journey.
Real Ways a Lactation Consultant Can Help with Your Breastfeeding 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 latch 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 have already seen a lactation consultant in the hospital setting. 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.
- Returning To Work: Setting up the pump, building a pumping schedule, choosing bottles, washing and sanitizing….when you’re a pumping mama, the list of things to consider is long. If you are planning to pump and breastfeed after returning to work, meeting with an IBCLC will set you up for success with pumping, feeding schedules, and much more.
- Supplementing with Formula: If you need or want to feed your baby formula (either exclusively or along with breastmilk), an IBCLC can help as you navigate that transition. A lactation consultant can sit with you and make a plan for when and how to feed formula vs breastmilk.
- Increasing Supply: If you find yourself struggling with your milk supply, a visit to 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 practiced eye is key to 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 a breastfeeding relationship, their perspective and advice can also be wonderful when ending one. 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 18,000 IBCLCs here in the US. Although that seems like a lot, it may be difficult to access an IBCLC in some areas or communities. If there is 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.
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 is no shame in that. Seeking lactation help not only makes for a better breastfeeding relationship, but it expands and improves your overall emotional support system – a necessary component of motherhood.