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What is Most Important to Study for the IBCLC Exam?

Woman wearing green sweater studying on a laptop computer.

Over the years, I’ve taught thousands of IBCLC® candidates. I felt sure I’d heard every imaginable question about the IBCLC exam. Then a candidate asked me, “What is most important to study for the IBCLC exam?”

The question stopped me dead in my tracks. After a brief pause to consider her questions, here’s what I told her.

Know your terminology

I’ve harped and harped and harped on how it’s most important to study terminology, but I’ll say it again! Unless you know the meaning of a word, you cannot possibly answer a question about it. Know medical terms, as well as medical prefixes and suffices.

Check out my list of 1000 lactation terms you should know. It’s a great, free resource to help you identify terms you don’t know, which will help improve your exam score, and your clinical skills!

Know critical principles

We may not always realize it, but many or most of our clinical decisions are based on principles. (Or at least, they should be!)

Knowing a guiding principle helps with answering questions such as “Which would you do FIRST…” or “Which action is MOST important…” or “The PRIMARY purpose is…” Principles guide our decision-making in general, and especially our priorities for care.

Know normal parameters

In my experience, especially as a clinical instructor, I’ve noticed that students often don’t know what constitutes “normal” or a variation of normal. Therefore, they can’t recognize what is outside the realm of normal, i.e., abnormal.  Knowing normal parameters is imperative.

Know age-appropriate parameters and recommendations

Similarly, normal parameters vary with age. What’s appropriate for a 4-hour old baby is not necessarily appropriate for a baby who is 4 days, 4 weeks, or 4 months old.

This is true about intake, output, and other physiologic data. And, it’s most important to study age-appropriate parameters so that you can give anticipatory guidance. (Weaning is a good example.)

Know what factors make the situation different

We all know situations where some recommendation is effective, and possibly even the standard of care. But we also need to recognize situations where that approach isn’t appropriate. For example, applying ice might indeed reduce venous congestion, but in some cultures, any type of “cold” is forbidden.

Know your scope of practice

Knowing your role and responsibilities is crucial. For example, IBCLCs overstep their legal boundaries if they declare that a medication is safe for a mother or baby. The IBCLC exam presumes that IBCLC candidates do not have prescriptive privileges, and therefore they are not qualified to make a medical risk/benefit decision.

Know how to carry out common procedures

Not always, but generally, a procedure is a step-by-step series of actions. It’s most important to study this in the context of using equipment. (Although it certainly could be applicable to something else.)

Study with a global perspective

I find that many IBCLC candidates just assume that what is done in their hospital or in their community is the “right answer.” Not necessarily!

The IBCLC exam views counseling and recommendations from a global perspective, and generally consider the World Health Organization as having the last word on breastfeeding management.

What is most important to study in terms of topics?

All of the topics listed on the Detailed Content Outline! Take each topic and ask yourself:

  • Do I truly understand this term? (Perhaps force yourself to write at least three paragraphs to explain the who-what-where-when-which-why-how of each term.)
  • What critical principles govern my counseling or decision-making related to this condition or situation?
  • What are the normal parameters related to this condition or situation, and how would you recognize what’s abnormal?

Keep going, using each of the “know this” suggestions I’ve given in this post.

I admit, everyone will probably tackle this differently. How would you respond to the question about what’s most important to study for the IBCLC exam?

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