How to obtain a lactation consultant certification

Last updated: February 12, 2024
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Eleana Bowman
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How to obtain a lactation consultant certification
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The journey through motherhood can be challenging, and no new mom should have to embark on this new chapter of life alone. Fortunately, the healthcare field has a variety of professionals to support mothers and their newborns, including lactation consultants.

Lactation consultants work closely with breastfeeding mothers to ensure that their children are receiving an ample supply of nutritional breast milk. From latching to pumping guidance, these certified professionals are there to help every step of the way.

If you’re looking to make a difference for new mothers and their families, consider pursuing a career as a lactation consultant. In this article, we’ll review the steps to becoming a consultant, the salary you can expect, and the education you’ll need to become certified.

What is a lactation consultant?

A lactation consultant is a certified professional who helps new mothers during their breastfeeding journey. This can include navigating problems with latching, pumping, or milk production.

Whether you’re helping a mother with her first child or fourth, no baby is the same — including when it comes to breastfeeding. Some babies latch on to the breast immediately, while others struggle. Additionally, some mothers have difficulty producing enough milk.

Lactation consultants are needed to help mothers navigate their breastfeeding journey. Without their valuable expertise, mothers could experience painful infections, and their children may not receive enough milk to grow properly.

3 types of lactation consultant jobs

There are a few different lactation consultant positions you could pursue. Here’s a comprehensive breakdown of each one and the educational background you need to qualify:

Certified lactation counselor

Certified lactation counselor is the most accessible lactation consultant job to those looking to enter the field.

Here’s a breakdown of professionals who can become certified as lactation counselors:

  • Nurses

  • Midwives and doulas

  • Occupational therapists

  • Pediatricians

  • Family physicians

  • OBGYNs

However, a medical career isn’t the only field that accepts lactation counselors. The following professionals who work closely with expectant and new mothers can also become certified lactation counselors:

  • Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) employees

  • Peer counselors

  • Speech and language therapists

  • Breastfeeding advocates and perinatal outreach nurses

Certified lactation counselor is the best position for those without a healthcare education background to apply for. If you’re looking to proceed further as a lactation consultant, you’ll need to complete additional schooling and certifications.

Certified breastfeeding counselor

Only those with an active registered nursing license are eligible to become certified breastfeeding counselors.

This certification is available through Prepared Childbirth Educators, Inc. Potential students must attend a 16-hour lactation-specific education class, split into two days of eight classroom hours each.

To obtain your certification as a breastfeeding counselor, you must have one year of working with lactating mothers or education on lactation. As long as you meet these requirements and have an active nursing license, you’ll be able to take the certification exam.

International board-certified lactation counselor

As the highest-paying lactation consultant position, becoming an international board-certified lactation counselor (IBCLC) is no easy feat.

This certification is available to those who hold a degree in the healthcare field, such as:

  • Nurses

  • Midwives

  • Doctors

  • Physical and occupational therapists

  • Dieticians

After completing an academic program in one of these fields, you must obtain an additional certification. The certification program requires 95 hours of lactation education and supervision hours from a lactation counselor.

Sometimes, these 95 hours are included in your degree pathway. However, most students will need additional schooling.

There are three different pathways that prospective IBCLCs can complete. Depending on your education experience, you’ll need to complete 300 to 1,000 hours of supervision — most likely 500 to 1,000, as only a handful of U.S. schools offer a pathway requiring only 300 supervisory hours.

How much do lactation consultants earn?

On average, lactation consultants earn $33.34 an hour or around $69,000 a year. However, the salary can vary depending on your lactation consultant certification and location.

Big cities and highly populated areas will have a higher demand for lactation consultants.

Per Payscale, the lowest-reported wage for lactation consultants is $20.44 per hour, and the highest is $45.97 per hour. If you pursue a career counseling new or expectant mothers, you’ll likely start at a lower end of the salary range, and your pay will increase as you gain field experience.

IBCLCs earn more than other certified lactation professionals since this certification requires a relevant healthcare degree (or 95 hours of lactation courses) and supervision hours.

Here’s an in-depth guide on how certifications like the IBCLC can improve your resume and increase your salary.

What are a lactation consultant’s responsibilities?

First and foremost, lactation consultants teach new and expectant mothers how to use a breast pump, help infants latch to the breast, and evaluate milk production.

Teaching is an essential responsibility for lactation consultants. As a professional lactation consultant, you’ll be responsible for helping mothers during their breastfeeding journey.

The teaching component of a lactation consultant’s job means it’s important for them to have good interpersonal skills. Find out more about developing excellent interpersonal skills here.

In addition to teaching expectant mothers, lactation consultants perform clinical assessments. They’ll evaluate the mother for milk production, clogged ducts, and more. This includes monitoring for possible infections and other concerns.

One in ten mothers report experiencing postpartum depression, which can affect their breastfeeding abilities.

Consultants will also assess the baby’s weight and latching ability.

Depending on their findings, the lactation consultant will make recommendations. However, it’s important that they also communicate with other healthcare professionals so that the mother and child receive excellent and well-informed all-around care.

Lastly, as healthcare providers, lactation consultants are expected to follow the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). That means that they are not allowed to disclose information about their patients to others without consent.

Steps to becoming a lactation consultant

Since there are three separate pathways to becoming a lactation consultant, this guide will review the most difficult one — becoming an IBCLC. Here’s what you’ll need to do to earn this certification:

Step 1: Complete a degree in higher education

While completing a healthcare degree might not be essential to becoming an IBCLC, it certainly helps.

Why is that? Well, potential students may have a hard time finding a program that accepts them with an accounting or art degree.

It’s not impossible, but you’ll need to work hard to convince your prospective school that you can complete their education program.

After all, schools want to brag about their graduates — accepting non-healthcare students might affect their graduation rates if the students can’t handle the coursework and drop out as a result.

Step 2: Find a job site that provides lactation-specific clinical experience

Here’s where things get complicated — lactation consultants who want to receive an international board certification need to complete a specific number of supervisory clinical hours.

But this number will depend on your career pathway. You should expect to complete 300, 500, or 1,000 supervisory hours.

An existing IBCLC must supervise these hours. If you decide to go to a school for a specific lactation consultant pathway, you’ll need 300 hours of supervision. Usually, schools will refer you to internship sites with professional lactation consultants.

Given the limited number of lactation consultant programs in the U.S., most people will need 500 or 1,000 supervisory hours. For perspective, 1,000 hours is 25 weeks of full-time work (40 hours).

Step 3: Take the exam

Once you’ve completed your education and supervisory hours, it’s time to take the IBCLC exam.

This exam is only offered twice a year, and you must register for it months ahead. You’ll need to pay the $660 application fee to apply for the exam and $330 to retest if you fail.

Fortunately, students have three or four months after registering for the test to study hard and prepare.

Plan to spend four hours at the examination center. Test takers will receive one break, but you will not be allowed to use your cell phone during the break. Make sure you can sit for this time commitment.

Step 4: Get a job as a lactation consultant

Now that you’ve finished your education courses and passed the international board certification exam, it’s time to find a job as a lactation consultant!

Lactation consultants work in a wide variety of clinical settings, including hospitals, outpatient clinics, and WIC offices. You can use Jobcase to apply for lactation consultant positions and find your perfect work setting.

Step 5: Apply for recertification

Your journey as a lactation consultant doesn’t end after you land that perfect job.

After five years of practice, IBCLCs will need to apply for recertification. Here’s what you’ll need to qualify:

  • 250 hours practicing as a lactation consultant

  • Completion of a recent course in basic life support education (i.e., a CPR class)

  • A passing grade on the recertification exam

As an active lactation consultant, getting 250 hours’ worth of work should be no problem. And many employers offer basic life support courses to their employees.

The toughest part will be completing the recertification exam. Lactation consultants have two options: retaking the initial exam or completing a self-assessment.

If you retake the exam, you’ll know what to expect, as there’s no difference between the first IBCLC exam and the recertification exam.

However, the self-assessment works differently. It’s an at-home exam that takes two hours to complete and highlights important lactation-specific topics. You must score over 75% on each topic area.

If you fail to earn 75% on a specific topic, you’ll need to earn continued education recognition points (CERPs) before you pass your recertification. Essentially, the IBCLC commission wants to ensure you know what you’re doing while on the job.

What’s the right path? Well, that depends on you!

FAQs about lactation consultants

Is being a lactation consultant hard?

It depends.

If you dislike completing academic tasks, like writing papers, completing homework, or sitting in class, you might not enjoy working toward becoming a lactation consultant.

However, if you can get past the academic part, you’ll be rewarded with hands-on experience and a high-paying job.

What is the highest lactation certification available?

International board-certified lactation counselor is the highest certification available — and earns the highest salary.

However, it’s not the only lactation consultant certification available. You have two other options: certified lactation counselor or certified breastfeeding counselor.

What are the differences between the three lactation consultant certifications?

The two key differences between the three lactation consultant certifications are pay and education.

An international board-certified lactation consultant will earn a high salary but has the most education requirements.

A certified breastfeeding counselor position is only available for registered nurses (RNs), so as long as you have an RN degree and currently work in the field, you can become certified.

The certified lactation counselor certification is available to a wide variety of professionals who work closely with mothers and young children. While you still need a degree, you don’t necessarily need healthcare education if you meet the Academy of Lactation Policy and Practice requirements.

Start your search for lactation consultant jobs today!

Are you ready to start pursuing a career as a lactation consultant? Take a look at currently available positions. Simply input your location and desired position to find jobs in your area. And when you register for an account, you can also receive emails for newly posted positions to get a leg up over your competition!

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