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What is an IBCLC, Really?

Woman looking off into distance

So many people don’t understand what an IBCLC® is. Even more amazing is that some of those people actually start the process to become an IBCLC! I’m not an “official” voice here. I’m just a person who has been an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC) for many years and encountered many IBCLC-hopefuls.

What an IBCLC actually does in a day depends on may factors, especially the location, setting and population served. But in general, the IBCLC carries out the functions of protecting, promoting, and supporting breastfeeding, as described by the World Health Organization. 

A person who promotes breastfeeding

Promotion is about active “encouragement for the furtherance of a cause, venture, or aim.” That means working at the personal, interpersonal, and system level to further the cause of breastfeeding.

That might involve something as simple as raising awareness of breastfeeding through World Breastfeeding Week. Or it may be something that requires more effort, such as starting a local Baby-Café or learning to read research studies.  

A person who protects breastfeeding

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, to protect means “to cover or shield from exposure, injury, damage, or destruction,” and also, “to maintain the status or integrity of especially through financial or legal guarantees.”

Indeed, the IBCLC has a special responsibility to promote and maintain breastfeeding as the biological and cultural norm. The integrity of breastfeeding is often about advocacy. That often involves keeping the focus on breasts as the mammary gland to nurture the young of the species (rather than allowing breasts to be exploited as sexual objects).

But is also means that the IBCLC advocates for financial, legal, political, and ethical aspects of protection. This might include advocating for:

A person who offers support

Ah! Now this is what jumps to mind when most people think of the role of the IBCLC.

Indeed, this may be social support for the feeding decision, or educational support (teaching) to enable parents to carry out their decision to breastfeed.

I suspect that if I asked the average person, “What does an IBCLC do?” they would say, “Well, things like counseling the parents, assisting with positioning and latch, and maybe pumping.” Okay. True enough. But there’s a lot that most people don’t understand.

The IBCLC has special training about breastfeeding and lactation from conception through age 2 and beyond. It’s not just those 3 days in the hospital. And, it includes understanding the needs and behaviors of preterm infants as well as older infants and toddlers.

The IBCLC also has special training for mothers and infants with special needs. For example, infants with metabolic disorders or structural anomalies, and mothers who have endocrine or hormonal problems.

In short, while positioning, latch and pumping are likely the primary responsibilities that IBCLCs encounter most frequently, they have plenty of other roles and responsibilities along the health-illness continuum during the first 1,000 days of human life at the individual level, and the system level.

It’s a certification

To qualify for the IBCLC exam, individuals must complete:

  • several healthcare science courses
  • hours of clinical experience
  • 95 hours of lactation specific education and commnication skills.

Thereafter, candidates must successfully pass a rigorous examination that consists of 175 test items on 7 major disciplines (and 105 subtopics). It’s pretty tough.

Be aware, however, that the IBCLC certification is not a license. A license is a governmental (non-private) regulation which is required in order for the person to practice. That is in contrast to a certification from a private organization (e.g., the IBLCE) which recognizes that the certificant has voluntarily sought special training and met specific criteria.

To date, I’ve helped 25% of the currently-certified IBCLCs in the United States to obtain or renew their IBCLC certification. (And that’s not counting those who have lapsed, retired, or died. Nor does it include those outside of the US.) I’m happy to help others, but I want them to know, from the get-go, that getting this certification is about much more than just positioning and latching of healthy newborns.

I’ve found that many people come to me entirely confused about what an IBCLC is, and how to become eligible to sit for the IBCLC exam. If that’s you, I have just what you need!

Sign up for my FREE How to Become a Lactation Consultant video series. In less than 30 minutes, I can help you to develop a plan for how to get from wondering about what an IBCLC is to the first steps of getting the job you’re passionate about! Click here to get started!

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