The 411 on Lactation Consultants
By Mary Helen Berg
Women who look forward to nursing a new baby, and think of it as a warm, bonding experience, are sometimes shocked to find that the first weeks of breastfeeding can be exhausting, frustrating, and painful. Nursing is not always easy, but it is a skill that, with a little patience and determination, anyone can learn. Lactation specialists are trained health-care professionals dedicated to helping new mothers overcome the hurdles they encounter when first learning to nurse.
When I had my first baby, I had never heard of a lactation consultant. Little did I know that she would become my most trusted friend—if only for a little while.
Who Is a Lactation Consultant? Lactation consultants come from a variety of backgrounds. The most highly trained are International Board Certified Lactation Consultants (IBCLC), certified by the International Board of Lactation Consultant Examiners. Their training includes 90 hours of Lactation Education, and up to 1,000 hours of supervised clinical work, as well as college level courses in biology, anatomy, and nutrition. These professionals are committed to helping women breastfeed, and they have more classroom and clinical training than other breastfeeding counselors. Some registered nurses or other medical professionals also may take courses to augment their education so they can better assist women with breastfeeding.
What They Do Your consultant may be based in a hospital, or she may have a private practice. You may go to her office, or she may make home visits. She will examine you and your baby to rule out obvious physical problems that may hinder breastfeeding. Next, she will talk to you about how to position your body, how to hold your baby, and how to place him on the breast and help him latch on. Then, she will ask you to nurse while she observes your process. She can advise you on how long to nurse and how often. She will confirm what works, coach you on alternative approaches, and even may provide a written plan for you to follow when she leaves.
How to Find One According to the International Lactation Consultant Association (ILCA), some hospital complexes contain lactation centers that will send a specialist to your room to work with you and your baby before you are discharged, and provide service for up to ten days after the birth. You can also seek a referral from your obstetrician, pediatrician, or a breastfeeding support organization such as La Leche League International (llli.org). Also, ILCA has a directory of certified consultants at ilca.org. Locally, the Sonoma County Breastfeeding Coalition has multiple resources at sonomacountybreastfeedingcoalition.org as does the California Department of Health Care Services at tinyurl.com/cx9vksu9.
What’s the Cost? Lactation consultants are trained health-care specialists, so don’t expect a bargain. Charges can range greatly according to your location and your consultant’s experience, among other variables. Check with your insurance provider, as it may cover some lactation services under obstetric or first-year pediatric care.
The Good News Although lactation consultant services are not cheap, there is good news: A consultant can usually quickly target your problem and get you on the right track in just a few visits.
You Need a Lactation Consultant If…
You don’t live near female relatives who can show you the ropes, or you are the first of your friends to have a baby.
You are anxious about nursing.
You are a mother of multiples and need advice on feeding two or more babies.
Your baby has nipple confusion and won’t take your breast after trying a bottle.
Your nipples are cracked and sore.
Your milk supply is low.
You need to learn how to express your milk.
You have physical issues such as inverted or flat nipples.
Your breasts are engorged and painful.
Your baby has trouble latching on.
Mary Helen Berg is a freelance writer and mother of three who spent the better part of four years breastfeeding. Her work has appeared in USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, Your Teen Magazine, Scary Mommy, and parenting publications nationwide. She is currently working on a picture book for children.