By Ali Weatherford

If you’ve been reading our articles, you probably have some idea of what a lactation consultant does, but I’ve never put it all in one place! I’ve been working with a few dozen lactation consultants (IBCLCs) for nearly four years now, and I still hear new and interesting stories about how they help their clients.

Breastfeeding might seem like a pretty narrow and straightforward thing to do, but you might be surprised at all of the detours people sometimes need to take. Lactation consultants are there to help with ALL of it.

Education and Support

It all starts with education. As much as possible, we love for people to take a class with us while they’re pregnant. Our prenatal breastfeeding classes can give you a good start. These classes are taught by an experienced IBCLC (International Board Certified Lactation Consultant) and can help you know what to expect when your baby arrives and needs to eat, but also how to prepare beforehand.

There are some things you can do while pregnant and during birth that can help you have an easier start with breastfeeding. You can also schedule a one-on-one appointment with an IBCLC or breastfeeding counselor or educator to get some information about what might be coming for you. They can educate you on all the basics, and also talk to you about your specific situation and needs.

Support is also critical. We have a support group for new and expectant parents that is led by an IBCLC. It’s great to meet with other new parents, see breastfeeding happen, and hear about the kinds of things that come up for new parents related to breastfeeding. I love to encourage our pregnant students to join the breastfeeding support group so they can start to see and normalize breastfeeding.

In Hospital or Birth Center Care

You might be visited by an IBCLC in the hospital or birth center right after giving birth. If you are under the care of a midwife, they receive lactation training and most often provide some support for breastfeeding immediately following birth. Even if you are not having trouble with breastfeeding, I strongly encourage you to spend time with this professional. They can give you some education about how breastfeeding and lactation will change in the next few days, weeks, and even months.

Some people find it easy to breastfeed at first and don’t need specific help right after giving birth, but things do change. Some people are surprised at HOW MUCH things might change on day 3 or 4 or 5. When you know what to expect and how to handle it, you can keep breastfeeding with less frustration and worry.

The lactation consultant can also help you with basic things such as latch (how your baby holds the nipple) and positioning for better breastfeeding AND for your comfort. They can tell you about how long to breastfeed, whether you should breastfeed on one side or both at each feeding, how often to breastfeed, and what that looks like as your baby develops. They can also offer you resources for breastfeeding support in your local community in case you need more help after you go home.

A lactation consultant can also help you figure out what to do if breastfeeding is not going well or if you have to be separated from your baby for any reason. There are many things you can do to preserve your milk supply and continue to be able to offer your breast milk to your baby. They can help you with hand expression, pumping, getting donor milk for your baby, and how to bottle feed your baby formula or breast milk.
They can also help you develop a feeding plan that works for you. It’s not as simple as breastfeeding or formula feeding. You may fall into one of those categories, but often people are somewhere in between.

Your baby may breastfeed directly half the time, then bottle feed using pumped milk half the time. They may breastfeed sometimes and use formula in certain situations. They may never breastfeed OR use formula, but instead exclusively feed their baby pumped milk from a bottle. Or they may use a supplemental nursing system (SNS) instead of a bottle. And there are even more ways to feed a baby! However you need to do it, a lactation consultant can help you feed your baby.

Outpatient Care

Once you leave your hospital or birth center, you may or may not need extra support from a lactation consultant. If you do, there may be several options for how to get it depending on where you are. There may be an outpatient clinic you can visit when you need extra help. You may also find a lactation consultant that does home visits or telehealth appointments.

Breastfeeding Success offers care in all three ways. Depending on where you live, you might have a hard time finding this kind of care at all. If you don’t have a lactation consultant near you, telehealth can be a great option, or consider reaching out to your nearest WIC office. They likely offer some kind of breastfeeding support. Even if you don’t qualify for help from WIC, they may be able to help you connect with other resources.

The type of support you need can help you decide where to go as well. An IBCLC is qualified to help at all levels, including the clinical management of breastfeeding and more complex issues. Other lactation consultants can be great for help with more basic troubleshooting and education.

Basic Support

A lactation consultant can definitely help with the basics which aren’t basic for most people who are breastfeeding for the first time! They can:

  • do a breast assessment to see if you might need any special support for breastfeeding based on your anatomy.
  • look into the baby’s mouth to make sure the baby doesn’t have any obstructions to easy breastfeeding.
  • help you hold your baby more comfortably while feeding.
  • show you how to know your baby is holding the nipple correctly or “latching” well.
  • watch a feeding and show you how to know that your baby is drawing out milk well and getting enough.
  • give you information about how long to breastfeed, how often, and how to know that your baby is getting enough milk.

Specialty Support

An IBCLC can also help if you have a more complex situation. Sometimes people are separated from their babies for a medical reason or other reason and then it can be a lot harder to figure out how to get your breast milk to your baby or you might have to find another feeding option. Lactation consultants can help you find the solution that works best for you, and it’s often a very creative middle ground.

They can help you:

For any clinical issues, an IBCLC will be needed and they will most likely communicate and consult with your pediatrician, family practice physician, or other doctors or specialists who might need to be advised or updated about your situation or your baby’s. And there are even more problems that can come up when you’re breastfeeding that an IBCLC can help with.

In addition to this kind of clinical management, they can also help you meet some special goals. A lactation consultant can help you re-lactate if a separation from your baby made you lose your milk supply and you’d like to get it back. If you are adopting a baby, expecting a baby by surrogacy, or are a non-birthing parent to your baby, a lactation specialist can help you induce lactation. That means creating a milk supply without giving birth!

And finally, if you are needing or opting to use formula instead of breast milk, a lactation consultant can teach you about formula options and help you choose. They can show you how to properly mix, store, and use formula safely as well as how to bottle feed so you are sure not to overfeed your baby.

However it ends up happening, your baby will need to eat! A lactation consultant is trained and educated to help you discover what works best for you and your family. They are baby feeding specialists. It’s very important to allow or seek out this kind of help, even if you’re not sure you need it! You will most likely bump up against some kind of hurdle while figuring out how to feed your infant.

A lactation consultant can help you be successful in breastfeeding, but it’s important to remember also that any amount of breast milk is beneficial, so you can feel good about providing breast milk, even if it’s a small amount or for a very short time. They are there for you and want to make sure that you are supported physically and emotionally.

Our articles are not intended or implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.

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