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When is the Right Time to Start Studying for IBCLC Exam?

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It’s such a conundrum, isn’t it? A comprehensive, career-critical exam breeds two fears. Start too late and you might not have time to learn everything you need to know. On the other hand, start too soon and you risk forgetting what you learned. So, when, exactly, is the right time to start studying for the IBCLC exam?

Here’s the short answer: It depends on your background.  

Better answer: These are the “themes” I’ve noticed as I’ve helped thousands of IBCLC candidates.

Format and difficulty level

Here are three factors to consider about format and difficulty level.

General: The IBCLC exam is formatted as a multiple choice (MC) exam. To understand a little more about MC exams, and how they’re formatted, check out my anatomy of an exam post.

Structure of the exam, including the disciplines and subtopics it covers, number of total items, time allotment, type, and what does or doesn’t result in a penalty to your score.

Difficulty level. So many people have told me, “I’ve scored 90-100% on all of the practice exams I’ve taken so far!” And my here’s question to them: Do you seriously think you’ll score 90-100% on the real IBCLC exam? Scores in the 90s are fairly uncommon, and to my knowledge, no one has ever scored 100% since the exam was first offered in 1985.

You might ask yourself, “How well do I deal with these three factors?”

Age groups

The exam covers everything from pre-conception through age 2. IBLCE no longer reveals the breakdown of these age groups on the exam, so you’ll need to be fully prepared to face test items that address each trimester of pregnancy and each month of infancy/childhood.

You might ask yourself, “In what time period do I have the least knowledge and experience?”

Health-wellness continuum

The exam covers anything along the health-wellness continuum. That is, you’ll be tested on everything from totally normal to totally abnormal during conception, gestation, parturition, and lactation. The right time to start studying for the IBCLC is probably fairly early unless your experience has focused on the complete range of normal to abnormal situations. 

You might ask yourself, “In what area do I have the least amount of knowledge and experience?”

Photo recognition

About 50% of your IBCLC exam items will require you to recognize what’s going on in a photo. If you’ve given thousands of hours of clinical care, you’ll recognize many or most of the conditions in mothers and infants in all phases of the health-wellness continuum.

On the other hand, if you’ve accumulated only the minimum number of required hours, based on your chosen pathway, the right time to start studying for the IBCLC exam is fairly early, especially for the photo portion of the exam.

You might ask yourself, “How much knowledge and experience do I have recognizing what’s going on in real clinical situations?”

Clinical experience

The required number of clinical hours is the minimum you’ll need to apply for the exam. Let me put that in slightly different words: Completing the minimum number of clinical hours makes you eligible to apply for the exam. That doesn’t mean you have enough clinical experience to actually pass the exam.

Don’t confuse eligibility with success!

When I took the exam for the first time, I had well over 20,000 hours in multiple areas of maternal-infant care. I won’t claim to have “done it all” but yeah, I had done a lot. And believe me, I needed all those experiences (and probably more!) to face that first exam.

Ask yourself: How many hours have I spent giving direct care (not just observing someone else giving care and making decisions)? If you’ve had only the minimum number of hours in the clinical area, the right time to start studying for the IBCLC exam is sooner than it would be for more experienced candidates. Because, in all likelihood, you’ll need to learn it for the first time.

Lactation specific education

Okay, I’ll be blunt here.

If you accumulated your 95 hours with what I call the hodge-podge approach, you probably picked content to meet the eligibility requirement, NOT the content you’ll actually be tested on. (And if you’ve never taken the exam before, you’re not in a very good position to decide what content will actually help you.)

Here’s what I always say: 

It’s human nature to pick out the hours we find interesting, cheap, and convenient. Trouble is, the IBCLC exam is boring, expensive, and tough.

Be fully transparent with your answer when you ask yourself, “When is the right time to start studying for the IBCLC exam?”


This is perhaps the most overlooked aspect of the IBCLC exam.

As Henry Ford famously quoted, “Whether you think you can or think you can’t, you’re right.”

In other words, your level of self-confidence is critical for your success. Some people need to do more work or start their work earlier (or both) to feel full of confidence.

If you’re in that boat, consider our exam prep resources. These resources are designed for people who are reviewing after they have met the eligibility requirements, NOT for people who are trying to become eligible.

Based on your experience in these themes, when will you start studying for the IBCLC exam?

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