Lactation Consultant

Breastfeeding is the lifelong gift that keeps on giving in the form of health to mothers and babies. Both reap numerous health benefits from breastfeeding, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC 2019), including a lowered risk of breast and ovarian cancer for mothers and a reduction in ear, respiratory, and gastrointestinal infections for babies. Public health support for breastfeeding has galvanized in recent years. The CDC reported an 11 percent increase in the number of mothers who chose to start out breastfeeding their babies between 2004 and 2016, as well as a 26 percent increase in maternity care practices that support breastfeeding in hospitals (CDC 2019).

While these are encouraging statistics, the bigger numbers show that nursing mothers need more support; 60 percent of mothers stop breastfeeding sooner than they planned, citing a lack of instruction in hospitals and prohibitive workplace policies (CDC 2019). To fill this need, lactation consultants are stepping in to empower nursing mothers through educational support and fulfill a much-needed role in making the benefits of breastfeeding more accessible.

Professional qualifications for lactation consultants run the gamut from high school graduates with extensive on-the-job training to registered nurses with board certification. Many lactation consultants work independently as private practitioners and make house calls to nursing mothers and infants postpartum, while others work with mothers and newborns in healthcare settings such as hospitals or midwifery clinics. While there is currently no occupational data for lactation consultants, registered nurses (RNs) can be classified as lactation consultants and the number of RNs is on the rise in the United States. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS 2019) predicts that 371,500 new RN positions will be needed between 2018 and 2018, a 12 percent rate of occupational growth that is much faster than the national average.

Read on to learn more about how to become a lactation consultant.

Lactation Consultant Specializations & Degree Types

There are several pathways to becoming a lactation consultant. While there are currently no state-level licensing requirements for the career, there are accredited educational programs and board certification exams to pursue to prove professional qualifications. Lactation consultants with more education and credentials can expect to have a wider option of career opportunities and higher salaries.

Lactation consultants can pursue training through three distinctive pathways:

  • Trade school or undergraduate certificate programs
  • Bachelor’s degree programs in nursing, health sciences, or public health with a lactation consultant certificate
  • Master’s degree programs in nursing, health sciences, or public health with a lactation consultant certificate

All of the above pathways enable aspiring lactation consultants to pursue board-certification through the International Board of Lactation Consultant Examiners (IBLCE) and earn the title of Registered Lactation Consultant (RLC). Some employers may require more specific degrees in nursing, health sciences, or public health in addition to RLC board certification from the IBLCE.

Admissions Requirements for Lactation Consultant Programs

Every lactation consultant program has distinct requirements for admission. Here is a list of the typical tasks and documentation required of applicants:

  • Application fee
  • Campus tour (optional, but preferred)
  • Completed application
  • Criminal background check
  • Drug screening test
  • Interview with an admissions specialist
  • Official high school transcript
  • Official transcripts from a regional or nationally accredited college or university (or high school transcripts for some programs)
  • Physical health exam
  • Proof of current vaccinations (e.g., hepatitis B, measles, mumps, and rubella, tuberculosis, tetanus, diphtheria, etc.)
  • For non-native speakers of English: proof of academic English language competency through official scores from the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) or the International English Language Testing System (IELTS)
  • For coursework earned outside of the United States: official transcripts must be evaluated and translated into English

Lactation Consultant Program Accreditation

Accredited educational programs offer a metric of quality and ensure prospective students that an institution’s program curriculum, staff, and faculty have all met high standards of academic and professional rigor. Accreditation can be programmatic, regional, or national and recognized accrediting agencies are approved by the U.S. Department of Education.

The International Board of Lactation Consultant Examiners (IBLCE) offers three pathways for aspiring lactation consultants to pursue board certification and earn an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC) credential. However, it does not accredit lactation education programs. The Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Programs (CAAHEP) is the leading programmatic accrediting agency that approves more than 2,200 entry-level education programs, including lactation consultant programs, in the health science professions. CAAHEP is accredited by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA).

Overall, aspiring lactation consultants are encouraged to ensure that their educational institution of choice has been accredited by a CHEA-recognized body.

On-Campus Lactation Consultant Degree Programs

Henry Ford College

The Henry Ford College in Dearborn, Michigan offers a 42-credit certificate of achievement for aspiring lactation consultants. Designed for students who are not registered nurses, this program prepares students with coursework and practical experience to prepare them to take the IBLCE certification exam and become board-certified lactation consultants.

Incoming students are strongly recommended to complete three 100-level courses in medical terminology and biology prior to beginning the program. Courses are offered in a specific sequence over three semesters and include nutrition, basic lactation concepts, applied principles of breastfeeding, sociology, and an advanced practicum course. Academic advisors and faculty counselors are available to help students plan their course schedules.

  • Location: Dearborn, MI
  • Duration: Three semesters
  • Accreditation: Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Programs (CAAHEP) and Higher Learning Commission (HLC)
  • Tuition: $99 to $350 per credit-hour (depending on residency)

Drexel University

Drexel University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania offers an 18-credit undergraduate certificate for students to become human lactation consultants. The program curriculum is offered onsite at Drexel’s Center City campus and provides 90 hours of didactic coursework and 300 hours of supervised practice in lactation to meet the requirements of the “IBCLE’s Pathway 2,” discussed at length below in the certification section.

The program is available to currently matriculated, undergraduate and graduate students at Drexel University. Students who are not yet enrolled may apply for part-time undergraduate admission. The human lactation consultant program begins in a cohort once a year.

Requirements set forth by IBLCE require that students earn at least one academic credit and a passing grade at an accredited school in five of the following eight disciplines: biology, human anatomy, human physiology, infant growth and development, introduction to clinical research, nutrition, psychology or communication, and sociology or cultural anthropology. Students must complete all prerequisite courses prior to beginning supervised practicum coursework.

  • Location: Philadelphia, PA
  • Duration: One to three years
  • Accreditation: Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Programs (CAAHEP)
  • Tuition: $17,382 per term

Online or Hybrid Lactation Consultant Degree Programs

Oregon Health Sciences University (OHSU) and Portland State University (PSU)

The OHSU-PSU School of Public Health offers an undergraduate certificate in human lactation and a lactation education program. Some courses are offered in a hybrid format allowing students to take classes on- and off-campus. The programs offer comprehensive training to two types of students: current health professionals and students who want to improve their lactation skills. Students seeking bachelor’s degrees in health sciences or students interested in maternal and infant healthcare policy are also ideal candidates.

The program curriculum follows the three pathways set forth for certification by the IBLCE, and students must select their preferred pathway prior to taking courses in lactation education. Coursework includes biology, human anatomy and physiology, nutrition, and lactation practicum classes. Students who complete these certificate programs are prepared to take the IBCLE’s lactation consultant board certification exams.

  • Location: Portland, OR
  • Duration: Two to three years
  • Accreditation: Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Programs (CAAHEP)
  • Tuition: $159 per credit-hour (resident); $598 per credit-hour (non-resident)

Union Institute & University

Offering flexible and fully online programs, the Union Institute & University offers a 120-credit bachelor of science and a master of arts in maternal child health with a specialization in human lactation. Students can choose to complete courses on a full- or part-time schedule, and classes begin every eight weeks. Students with existing credit-hours may transfer up to 80 credits.

Graduates from the bachelor of science in maternal child health with a human lactation major may take advantage of a bridge pathway and apply up to 12 of the credits from their bachelor’s program towards a master’s degree in health and wellness. Financial aid is available to those who qualify, and Union Institute & University is known as a military-friendly school.

  • Location: Cincinnati, OH
  • Duration: Two to four years
  • Accreditation: Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Programs (CAAHEP)
  • Tuition: $545 per credit-hour (bachelor’s); $748 per credit-hour (master’s)

How Long Does it Take to Become a Lactation Consultant?

The time needed to become a lactation consultant is anywhere from one to five years. All three International Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC) pathways require applicants to take a minimum of 90 hours of lactation-specific courses within the five years immediately prior to applying to take the exam. The number of supervised clinical hours ranges from 300 to 1,000 hours, depending on the educational and professional qualifications of an applicant.

For example, an applicant with a high school diploma and no previous educational training would have to take 90 hours of lactation courses and complete 1,000 practicum hours. An applicant who has completed a CAAHEP-accredited healthcare program through a college or university, on the other hand, would only need 300 practicum hours before becoming eligible to sit for the IBCLC exam.

How To Become a Lactation Consultant – Step-by-Step Guide

Step One: Graduate from High School or Earn a GED (Four Years)

Many rewarding careers begin with the critical achievement of earning a high school diploma, and most certificates and degree programs require a high school diploma for admission. Taking courses in anatomy and physiology, biology, and chemistry can help high school students prepare for a lactation consultant career.

Step Two: Complete Prerequisite Courses (At Least One Year)

Depending on the chosen pathway, those pursuing certification or a bachelor’s degree in lactation consultancy are required to take 25 hours or more of academic courses in lactation health outlined by the International Board of Lactation Consultant Examiners (IBLCE). Courses include biology, nutrition, sociology, and communications.

Step Three: Enroll in an Accredited Program (At Least One Year)

Those pursuing a certificate or degree in lactation consultancy are advised to seek out programs approved by programmatic-accrediting organizations such as CAAHEP or a regionally-accredited school approved by the US Department of Education.

Step Four: Complete supervised practicum hours (Timeline Varies)

All candidates aspiring to take the IBLCE exam must complete a minimum of 90 hours of lactation education and general education. The number of required practicum hours varies for each pathway.

Step Five: Pass IBCLC Licensing Exam (Less Than One Year)

International Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC) exams are given a few times per year and prerequisite coursework and practicum requirements must be met prior to becoming eligible to take the test.

What Do Lactation Consultants Do?

Lactation consultants teach nursing skills for mothers and infants to overcome challenges with breastfeeding. They perform a number of services to empower mothers to nurse their children including:

  • Teaching postpartum mothers what to look for in a good latch
  • Instructing expectant parents on best practices for breastfeeding
  • Helping to position babies and mothers
  • Advising parents about breast pumps
  • Sharing knowledge with parents about nutrition for infants
  • Performing weight checks on infants
  • Advocating for policy changes and staying current with professional development

In addition to board certification through the International Board of Lactation Consultant Examiners (IBLCE), there are several professional organizations geared towards professional development in the field of lactation consultancy. The International Lactation Consultant Association (ILCA) and the US affiliate organization the United States Lactation Consultant Association (USLCA) are member associations for lactation consultant professionals who care for breastfeeding families. Membership is open to all who support and promote breastfeeding.

La Leche League International is another worldwide organization that offers accreditation for leadership positions to promote and advocate for breastfeeding mothers and babies.

Lactation Consultants Certifications & Licensure

The International Board of Lactation Consultant Examiners (IBLCE) offers a certification program that has been overseen and continuously accredited by the National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA) since 1988.

Applicants must meet eligibility criteria in three areas: health sciences education, lactation-specific education, or lactation-specific clinical experience.

There are three different pathways to be eligible to sit for the IBCLC exam:

  • Pathway 1: Recognized Health Professionals and Recognized Breastfeeding Support Counsellors
  • Pathway 2: Accredited Lactation Academic Programs
  • Pathway 3: Mentorship with an IBCLC

Students in practicum courses are typically required to maintain a basic life support for healthcare providers and CPR certification from the American Heart Association.

How Much Do Lactation Consultants Make?

Salaries for lactation consultants vary based on a number of factors: training, education, certification, work experience, self-reported earnings, and regional cost of living. The average annual salary earned by a registered nurse (including those with lactation consultant training) ranges from $54,931 (Payscale.com, 2019) to $71,730 (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2019).

Registered nurses starting out as lactation consultants can expect to make around $50,800, and individuals with extensive experience and training in teaching roles can earn average annual salaries of $82,217 (Salary.com 2019). Lactation consultants with extensive experience and advanced degrees often choose to teach clinical courses in lactation to future nurses or see clients as private practitioners. Salaries for highly experienced, top-earning registered nurse lactation consultants such as these can be as high as $106,530 (BLS 2019).

Rachel Drummond

Rachel Drummond

Writer

Rachel Drummond is a freelance writer, educator, and yogini from Oregon. She’s taught English to international university students in the United States and Japan for more than a decade and has a master’s degree in education from the University of Oregon. A dedicated Ashtanga yoga practitioner, Rachel is interested in exploring the nuanced philosophical aspects of contemplative physical practices and how they apply in daily life. She writes about this topic among others on her blog (Instagram: @oregon_yogini).

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