Professional Pathways for Breastfeeding Support
It’s no secret that having the right information and support can make all of the difference in whether a mother meets her breastfeeding goals, so the effect that you can – and will – make as an educator or support person will impact generations to come. If providing breastfeeding education or support is your passion, there are several different avenues to make it your profession. Choosing which path is right for you can be overwhelming, so we’re here to help. The following information will help you to find the path that best suits your goals and help you evaluate how this new role may fit into your work life.
Common roles for breastfeeding education and support:
If your passion is breastfeeding education:
Certified Lactation Educator (CLE)
With this role, you would be qualified to actively teach courses (from pre-pregnancy through weaning) and qualified to provide nonmedical support. There is a wide variety in terms of certifying courses available, and most require lesson plan and/or curriculum development as part of your training. CLEs can teach their own courses independently, or work in conjunction with hospitals, schools, or other child care and childbirth educators.
If you want to offer nonmedical support and guidance:
Certified Lactation or Breastfeeding Counselor (CLC/CBC)
A CLC will provide nonmedical support to pregnant, breastfeeding, or weaning mothers, but does not necessarily teach courses on breastfeeding (this is what distinguishes the title from a CLE). This support can be given through large or local organizations, or through one-on-one relationships or groups that you establish yourself. Most certifying courses will require breastfeeding support experience as part of coursework. For some, becoming a CLC can be an early step in pursuit of becoming an IBCLC (see below).
If volunteering your help or leading support groups is important to you:
La Leche League Leader through LLLI or Breastfeeding Counselor through Breastfeeding USA
While the qualifications and steps required are different, both roles stipulate that you volunteer your time in the support and guidance of breastfeeding mothers. Within this role, you may offer support and guidance at organized group meetings or on your own time through one on one help or less formal meetings, depending on your interest and level of involvement. This can fill a very important need within many communities.
If your interest or background is in healthcare or the medical profession:
International Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC)
IBCLCs are medically trained health care professionals that specialize in the clinical management of breastfeeding. IBCLCs are certified by the International Board of Lactation Consultant Examiners under the direction of the US National Commission for Certifying Agencies and are required to have health sciences training as part of their requisite experience. If you’re interested in learning more, check out the International Lactation Consultant Organization, which is a non-government organization in relationship with the United Nations and World Health Organizations.
Some other resources of interest for any of these support roles include the World Health Organization Breastfeeding Counselling Training Course, which is available as a PDF download on their website. Also worth checking out is the Lactation Education Accreditation and Approval Review Committee, a non-profit organization responsible for reviewing lactation education programs and granting formal recognition to those programs that qualify. Their website includes helpful links and information. Your state health department may also offer training and certification for breastfeeding educators or counselors; the Texas Department of State Health Services, for example, has a program to become a Trained Breastfeeding Educator. Check with your state health department or local WIC office to see if they offer any training programs or courses.
The table below summarizes many of the training organizations that are available in the United States. Research and compare the organizations before committing to one and if possible, talk with trainees who have gone through the programs.
*This list is meant to be a starting point. Programs and distinctions may change over time. Refer to the organization or school website for more information.
**These estimates are based on the most current information available on the organization/school websites.
Finding the certification or program that is the right fit for you can seem daunting at first, but don’t let it dissuade you from pursuing your goals and making a difference in the lives of breastfeeding mothers in your community. A little research in the beginning will pay off in the long run.
Carefully consider the amount of time you want to commit to your role in breastfeeding support/education.
Some programs are much more intensive than others and some have limits on the time you can take to complete your training. Set yourself up for success by making sure to set a realistic timetable for yourself and your education. The next thing to consider is the time that you plan to dedicate to support or education once you’ve received your training or certification. Do you intend to make it a full-time job or something that fits into an already busy schedule? If you’re thinking in terms of a full-time position, then a more intensive program leading to an IBCLC distinction might be the best route for your. However, if you are looking to spend time here and there when you can, a volunteer role may suit you best.
Think about where you want to work, at least to begin with.
If you have the background or desire to work in a healthcare or medical setting, then becoming an IBCLC may be great fit for you. (Many IBCLCs began their medical experience in nursing.) In a nonmedical setting, an affiliation with a larger organization such as La Leche League International or Breastfeeding USA can help you to establish yourself within a community and build connections. Such organizations typically offer a set structure in terms of local meeting times and places. Working independently certainly has its advantages, as well, but will require more effort to establish yourself early on with clients and peers. Your aspirations may change or grow over time, as well, but it’s always good to begin with a plan in mind to make the most of your time and resources.
It’s impossible to emphasize enough just how important quality education and support is for all breastfeeding mothers. If this is your calling, then know that embarking on the path to become a breastfeeding educator or support person will challenge you in new ways but it will also inspire and reward you in more ways than you could imagine.
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Jennifer Stutzman, Freelance Writer
A Special thanks to Kristie Ellison of Nurtured Nest, LLC for helping with this article.
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