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Do I Need to be a Nurse to Become an IBCLC?

Do you need to be a nurse to become an IBCLC?

A resounding NO to that one! No, you do not need to be a nurse to become an IBCLC.

As a nurse, it’s hard for me to imagine how a non-nurse could possibly acquire the knowledge and skills to become an IBCLC. However, just recently we heard from one of my course attendees; she got 91% of the questions on the IBLCE exam correct – on her first try! We were thrilled for her!

In good company

So yes, of course it can be done. Look around. I can immediately think of people who are IBCLCs, but not nurses. I’m thinking of people like Linda Smith, Barbara Wilson-Clay, Kay Hoover, Kathleen Kendall Tackett, who have my profound respect. And they are, by anyone’s standards, exemplary in their work.

Here’s more good news on this. We have offered the Felix Biancuzzo Scholarship for aspiring lactation consultants since 2010, and I’d be inclined to say that half or more of the scholarship recipients have NOT been nurses. Yet, all have demonstrated outstanding competencies and characteristics which our review team felt exemplified those for tomorrow’s.

Different backgrounds, similar challenges

I’d say that hundreds of non-nurses have taken one of my courses. The non-nurses are, in many respects, just like the nurses. Some are overachievers, some aren’t. Similarly, there are some who are good test-takers, while some aren’t. Some do the minimal amount of work required, others immerse themselves in for the fullest learning experience they can have.

Many non-nurses have attended either my Comprehensive Course and/or my Lactation Exam Review course. Without looking in our corporate database, here are just a few examples that come to my head for those who are not nurses:

  • attorney
  • chef
  • chemical engineer
  • dental hygienist
  • doula
  • elementary school teacher
  • librarian
  • marketing expert
  • medical transcriptionist
  • model

Finding your own path

There are those who are not nurses but are considered healthcare professionals, such as registered dietitians, and others. Generally, those non-nurses that I’ve encountered qualify through Pathway 3 – it’s usually the best fit for them – but every IBCLC candidate needs to understand what is involved in each of the Pathways. I offer a free webinar where I explain this. If you’re curious, sign up here

For those of you that are already IBCLCs, what field were you in prior to certifying? How has your previous experience helped you in your journey? Tell me in the comments section below!

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  1. Patti Wallis

    Working in a hospital, all our IBCLC’s were required to be RN’s. I drew on my 25 years as an RN every day. I then went on to practice as an IBCLC for the next 20 years. My extensive knowledge base in newborn and special care nursing was utilized daily, in decision making and giving the very best care to moms and babies. I am now retired with so many wonderful memories.

    • Marie Biancuzzo

      Patti, I hear you. Truth is, we all bring to our IBCLC role our previous experience, expertise, enthusiasm and more–whatever that might be. Hoping you are enjoying retirement! Thanks for taking the time to comment.

  2. Jean Bonnyman, IBCLC

    No, you don’t have to be a nurse to be an excellent IBCLC, but try telling that to hospital administrator employers! None of the hospitals in my area (East Tennessee) will consider hiring a non-nurse for a position as an IBCLC. I find this very frustrating as job prospects are more challenging for those of us who did not attend nursing school. Pathway 3 can be difficult because clinical mentorships are few and far between. I had to temporarily relocate to Charlotte, NC, to take advantage of a hospital-based internship program in order to earn my clinical hours. My background is art history (undergrad) and publishing (by career).

    • Marie Biancuzzo

      What you’re saying about hiring non-nurses for hospitals seems more widespread than just your area. I’ve taught in 40 out of the 50 states and have heard this often. So I’m eager to remind everyone that my post was about eligibility, not employment, but since you brought up the employment thing, let me briefly address that. From the administrator’s point of view, there are lots of hospitals issues that can make it soooooooo much easier to just hire a nurse. I’m not saying that makes it right or wrong, I’m just saying, it is often the practicality of the matter if you are a hospital administrator.

  3. Veronica

    How can I become a lactation consultant I’ve been very interested in it. I worked as an lvn for about 15 years. Not sure want to continue with RN but know I want to be a lactation consultant and have been interested in health and nutrition my while life. I am proficient in Spanish, and have worked in hospitals for about 18 years. I’m still lactating myself with my third child and she is 2. Plus I would definitely need financial aide though. Thank you so much for any assistance.

    • Marie Biancuzzo

      As I understand, you are currently a licensed vocational nurse (LVN). If you go to the IBLCE’s list of recognized healthcare professionals, you’ll see that they do not specify that you must be a “registered” nurse. So although a non-healthcare person can pursue their IBCLC certification, certainly, the fact that you are already a nurse should make it a bit easier. I think you will find it difficult to get financial aid. Yet, it is not impossible! We offer a merit-based scholarship for our 90-hour course, and I would encourage you to apply for it. Read a little about its origins, and see how to apply here. Feel free to send email to OR call us during regular business hours at 703-787-9894. We’re happy to help.

  4. Deanna

    I’m 33 years old and am considering a career switch into the Lactation field. I have a B.S. degree, but I’m not an RN or anything clinical. I am still breastfeeding my daughter (17 months) and have been so inspired and changed by this journey. I considered just doing the CAPPA CLE week long certification to get started, but I had trouble finding jobs needing only this level of certification, and if I did, they don’t make enough for it to be worth the switch. In my heart, I would LOVE to become an IBCLC.

    However, my concern is that I’m not an RN, and as mentioned jobs will very hard to come by. I’ve looked up jobs online, all over the country, and the heavy majority are for a hospital that requires an RN. This is very discouraging when wanting to start an IBCLC program under Pathway 3. It makes me feel that in order to be truly successful I need to actually go to nursing school first, even though I have no interest in being a nurse, then in 2-3 years once I’m an RN I can start the IBCLC program. Therefore, I have some questions…

    1. Are birthing center, Women’s Health centers, etc. more inclined to possibly hire an IBCLC without an RN, than a hospital? Or will there be the same barriers regardless?
    2. Do you know if there is much of a salary difference from IBCLCs with an RN vs. without? I’m not asking for actual figures and I know it depends on the state, years of work experience, etc., but in general, would it be common to make significantly less?
    3. My husband is in the military, so we move every few years. If I did go through nursing school, how difficult is it to update my RN license to the new state?

    Overall, I’m trying to figure out if it’s worth going through nursing school first. This article makes me feel hopeful that I could have a successful career as an IBCLC without being an RN, but I’m still unsure. I would appreciate any insights, thoughts, or words of wisdom. Thank you.

    • Marie Biancuzzo

      Oh Deanna, I feel like we need a big pot of coffee to talk through all of your questions! Yet, I do hear these questions all the time. I am wondering if I could write a post on each of those three questions! Meanwhile, let me see if I can capture some of my thoughts:

      1) To some extent, I’d say that birthing centers are more likely to hire non-RNs than hospitals. BUT, I would also say that it very much depends on the locale where you’re living. Some states (or even some counties) have a glut of IBCLCs, and hence, those states aren’t likely to hire a non-RN. Supply and demand, you know? So it’s not just the setting, it’s also (in my experience) the overall geographic location. You also say, “I have no interest in being a nurse.” I want to warn you that I found nurses’ training (which is what we called it in my day!) was one of the most demanding, exhausting, and just plain grueling experiences I’ve ever had. By Christmas of the first year, we lost 1/3 (yes, one-third) of my class. To this day, I think it was a minor miracle that I finished, and got my RN license on the first try. I cannot imagine how one would do all that is required without some passion for the RN license.

      2) Difference in wage or salary: I’ve taught in 40 of the 50 states, and had conversations with IBCLCs in all 50 states. My impression is that non-nurses are not paid as much as nurses. I do remember one who said the difference was very substantial.

      3) I have several military nurse friends who are officers. Their state RN license follows them from one base to the next. However, it sounds like your husband is military, and you’re the milspouse. In that case, I assume (assume!) you’d need to jump through the hoops like any other civilian. How difficult is it to get reciprocity? Well, I’d say that depends on the state! It took me two full years to get from my active NY state license to an active DC license. It took me less than a month to get my VA state license. So it might be a huge hassle, or a walk in the park. Can’t say.

      To be honest, though, I think you need to ask different questions. You’re asking questions about setting and salary and hassle. Try to take a step back and think about how you really want to interact with mothers and babies. You might be thrilled to be an IBCLC in a clinic setting, for example. Or a physician’s office, or a WIC clinic or private practice or whatever. I loved the hospital and I miss it every single day. Every single day. But I love what I do now, too, which is a million miles from the hospital!

      You might consider my Certified Clinical Lactationist certification. It is not international. And it’s a tough preparation, with a rigorous exam. And, like any other certification, I cannot tell you that it will or won’t get you the job you want. There are too many variables–the setting, the locale, etc. etc. But it might be worth considering.

      If you want your 90 hours of lactation-specific course work, we do offer a military discount.

      A few final thoughts: I’m fairly sure I’ve had a more fulfilling career than most people I know. Yet, only once in my life was I qualified for the job I applied for. Every other time, I’ve had to grow into the job. And, I’ve often made my own opportunities. I’d say, think about what you really want. If you have a big enough “why”, the “how” will eventually become apparent to you.

      Thank you for the question. Call my office 703-787-9894 if you still need to talk. I’m away, but everyone on our team is there to help you (and others like you) to meet your goals!

      • Deanna

        Oh, I wish we could sit down for a coffee chat! First off, I sincerely appreciate your prompt, detailed and thoughtful response. I’ve tried to better understand the field by calling some lactation consultants in the area, contacting the state breastfeeding coalition, ILCA, etc., but have never received any response.

        Yes, I completely hear you. I am also concerned that my lack of passion for nursing. I know it would make nursing school quite challenging. I understand that it’s a preferred foundation of information for IBCLCs, but it would be a long time of just “getting through”. Even still, I can’t ignore the reality that having an RN significantly increases IBCLC opportunities. Would it be crazy/dumb/not a good idea to possibly do it backwards? Meaning, go for what I want now (IBCLC), try to start working in the field, and then possibly go to nursing school down the road if need?

        Yes, my husband is active duty military and I’m the spouse. I also assume that it would be a lot of jumping through hoops every few years to keep a valid RN license. And I would have already been all in on Pathway 3 if it wasn’t for my husband giving me pause by consistently asking the bottom line questions of salary and job availability. He’s trying to be supportive, but from his perspective I should only do it if it’s worth the cost and time of school and training vs. the salary vs. putting our daughter in daycare, etc., and he wants me to set myself up to work on base (which is a whole other story, but probably something I wouldn’t be considered for)… And it all keeps bringing me back to nursing school. It seems getting an RN is the first step to possibly having it all, even though I currently have no desire to be a nurse.

        I also appreciate you sending information on the CCL program and military discount. I will take this into consideration. Thank you!!!

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