Understanding the IBCLC Health Sciences Education requirement

There are four components to becoming an IBCLC, no matter which Pathway you take, as set by the International Board of Lactation Consultant Examiners (IBLCE):

  1. Health Sciences Education: Either be a recognized health professional OR complete 14 prerequisite health science courses
  2. Lactation Education: Complete 90 hours of lactation-specific education, and 5 additional hours of communication skills specific to lactation
  3. Clinical Hours: Gain clinical experience in lactation care (number of hours varies based on the pathway)
  4. Exam: Take and pass the IBCLC exam (offered twice each year)

We go over the basics of each component in our overview of all the Pathways post (as well as our individual posts on each Pathway), but still get frequent questions the IBCLC Health Sciences Education requirement. So we’ve created this separate post to go more in-depth! Below, we review the fundamentals of the IBCLC Health Sciences Education requirement and answer some common questions:

How to fulfill the IBCLC Health Sciences Education requirement:

As we noted above, there are two ways to satisfy the IBCLC Health Sciences Education requirement. One is by being a Recognized Health Professional. The list of health professionals currently recognized by IBLCE as satisfying the requirements is:

  • Dentist   
  • Dietician
  • Midwife   
  • Nurse  
  • Occupational Therapist
  • Pharmacist
  • Physical Therapist or Physiotherapist
  • Physician or Medical Doctor
  • Speech Pathologist or Therapist

In these professions, you are assumed to have already completed the relevant coursework. If you are NOT a professional on the list above, you must show that you have completed a list of 14 pre-requisite courses. The courses are split into two different categories – courses that must be taken for credit, and courses that can be taken as continuing education only. First, we’re going to look at the credit courses – these tend to generate the most questions.

List of courses that must be taken for credit:

  • Biology
  • Human Anatomy
  • Human Physiology
  • Infant and Child Growth and Development
  • Introduction to Clinical Research
  • Nutrition
  • Psychology or Counselling Skills or Communication Skills
  • Sociology or Cultural Sensitivity or Cultural Anthropology

There are four main things to understand about these courses:

1 – They’re good forever

There is no expiration date on these courses, so if you so if you took some of these courses at the college level at any point in time – even ten or twenty years ago – and can provide transcripts, you can count them. So pull out those old transcripts!

2 – You may have taken a course already – even if it doesn’t match the titles above

To understand the Health Sciences course requirements, there is no replacement for a careful, thorough reading of IBLCE’s Health Science’s Education Guide. For each course, they provide a description and list of multiple types of courses that would meet that requirement. For example, you may not have taken a course titled “Introduction to Clinical Research”. But courses like Introductory Statistics, Health Sciences Research Methods, or Statistics for Health Professionals could all potentially meet the requirements as well – reading over the course descriptions of these examples will help you determine whether courses you have already taken will meet the requirement.

3 – They must be taken for academic credit, but where you find them is flexible

The above courses must be taken for academic credit – so not a continuing education course, or a course that will just provide you with something like a certificate of completion. You can do that by taking them through your local university or community college. Many people take them on websites like study.com or sophia.org, which can be the most affordable option, and which you can do entirely online and self-paced. Again, a thorough reading of the IBLCE Health Sciences Education Guide will help with ensuring courses you take online will be accepted. The guide specifies “Courses recognized by ACE Credit or equivalent college credit equivalency services will be accepted as being from an accredited institution” – so you want to make sure that anywhere you take the courses will provide you with ACE Credit or an equivalent.

4 – One course can meet multiple requirements

Some of the prerequisites overlap enough that a single course may meet multiple requirements. The Health Sciences guide notes that a course entitled Human Biology that covers “the principles of biology with particular reference to the human body (anatomy and physiology)” meets the biology, anatomy and physiology requirements. That’s three prereqs covered, if you’re taking the right course! Similarly a course in Developmental Psychology that “examines the changes in personality, cognitive ability and behaviour throughout the lifespan” meets both the infant and child growth and development and the psychology requirements. Have we convinced you yet to read the Health Sciences Guide carefully and thoroughly?

List of courses that may be taken as continuing education:

The second category of courses is more straightforward (and now you already know that you can learn a lot about them from – where else – the IBLCE Health Sciences Guide):

  • Basic Life Support (e.g. CPR)
  • Medical Documentation
  • Medical Terminology
  • Occupational Safety and Security for Health Professionals
  • Professional Ethics for Health Professionals
  • Universal Safety Precautions and Infection Control

Five out of the six courses are often offered by lactation education websites as a low-cost “bundle”, so you can take them easily together. Basic Life Support – CPR and especially infant CPR – is often offered through your local health department, hospital, fire station, or other resources. We do encourage you to take it in person if possible, but given COVID-19 precautions you may need to take it online for now.

What to do next

The IBCLC Health Sciences Education requirement is often confusing when you first look at it. With the information above, you should now have a much better handle on which courses are required and how you can fulfill the requirements.

So to figure out what you need to do next, go through the following steps:

  1. Pull up your own academic transcripts so you can remember your full history.
  2. With the transcripts next to you, carefully go through IBLCE’s guidance and determine whether courses that you’ve already taken satisfy their prerequisites.
  3. Make a list of the prerequisites you still need to take. Could you combine any of them to be satisfied by taking a single course?
  4. Plan your courses – sign up at a local community college or for online education that offers ACE credit (or equivalent).
  5. Complete your coursework and celebrate – this is a huge step on your Pathway to IBCLC!

Frequently Asked Questions about the IBCLC Health Sciences Education Requirement:

When should I take the courses? Do I have to take them before I complete my lactation-specific education and/or clinical hours?

IBLCE does not require you to take the courses in any specific order or at any specific point in your training. Remember, they never expire – unlike your lactation-education specific education and clinic hours, which must be completed in the five years prior to applying for the exam. You may complete them at any time in your lactation training. However, many Pathway 2 programs, and many Pathway 3 mentors, will require you to have taken some or all of your health science prerequisites before beginning. Consider your Pathway plans in deciding when to complete the courses.

Does NC State’s MILK program offer these courses online as part of your lactation education? Do I have to complete the prerequisites before I enroll in your program?

Our current program at MILK focuses on IBLCE’s required lactation-specific education, including communication skills, required by IBLCE – not on the health sciences prerequisites. (As a large university, all the prerequisite courses can of course be completed at NC State – this likely makes the most sense if you are a currently enrolled NC State student.) We do not require you to have completed the health sciences prerequisites before enrolling in MILK’s online lactation-specific education program.

I still don’t understand the Pathways and how this piece fits in with everything else! Can you help?

Yes! Join one of our free, live monthly webinars – check out our Facebook events page and follow us on Facebook for announcements of upcoming dates. One of our expert instructors reviews the pathways in detail, including options for different lactation consultant training programs, and answers questions from attendees. Or watch our recorded webinar right now!

How do I become an IBCLC if I’m already a physician or advanced practice nurse?

It’s a question we see often: “I’m a physician/NP/CNM and would like to become an IBCLC. Where do I start?”

As IBCLCs, we understand the experience of getting fired up to support families who need lactation support. Sometimes it takes just a single encounter with the field. Sometimes it’s a passion that develops over years. But either way, if you landed here because you’re excited about becoming a lactation consultant – we get it! And we get how confusing the route to becoming an IBCLC can feel.

Many physicians and mid-level providers become interested in becoming IBCLCs, either through their professional experience working with families, personal experiences with their own children, or both! Based on your professional credentials, IBLCE considers you a “recognized health care professional”, which affects a few things about the options available to you on your pathway to IBCLC. So we’ve put together this guide to IBCLC especially for you! Let’s get started:

Understanding the IBCLC Pathways

Many health care professions usually have a single clear pathway: take required prerequisite courses, enroll in an accredited academic program, graduate, and pass an exam.

Graphic illustrating typical healthcare education pathway. Shows first taking prerequisites, then enrolling in a formal academic program including classes and clinicals. Next graduation and taking a licensing exam or board certification. Finally, it shows beginning professional practice.

So you likely completed prerequisites, enrolled in a degree program, completed your classes and clinical rotations, and graduated. You then studied and took your boards, and when you had passed, you were cleared to begin practice.

However, lactation consultants can choose from three possible pathways – and Pathway 1 is actually split into two different categories!

Feeling overwhelmed? We’re here to help break it down, and think about which Pathways will make the most sense for you as a physician, NP, or CNM.

Please note that your final word should always be the website of the International Board of Lactation Consultant Examiners (IBLCE). They set the standards and policies for IBCLC training, examination, and certification. Here is a flowsheet from IBLCE to help people navigate through the Pathways to certification.

So how to navigate the pathways to become an IBCLC given your background?

Common components of ALL Pathways

In each IBCLC Pathway, you must complete the following 4 components:

  1. Health Sciences Education: Either be an recognized health professional OR complete 14 prerequisite health science courses
  2. Lactation Education: Complete 90 hours of lactation-specific education, and 5 additional hours of communication skills specific to lactation
  3. Clinical Hours: Gain clinical experience in lactation care (number of hours varies based on the pathway)
  4. Exam: Take and pass the IBCLC exam (offered twice each year)

For 1, Health Sciences Education, you are considered to have fulfilled that requirement with your prior education. Your current professional credentials will satisfy that requirement per IBLCE.

Given that, you just have to figure out how and where you will complete your lactation education and clinical hours. Below, we’ll go through all the Pathways and how they might look for you:

Pathway 1 for health care professionals

In Pathway 1, just like all the other Pathways, you must complete your Lactation Education (see above) – our online course is an excellent fit for those completing Pathway 1. You then need to complete your clinical hours, which because you are a recognized health care professional, you may do as part of your work.

How many hours you need: For clinical hours, you must obtain at least 1000 hours of lactation-specific clinical experience in a supervised role. These hours must take place in the 5 years before you apply to take the exam.

Where you can earn your hours: You may already be working in a position where you can earn your hours. If you work in obstetric, family practice, or pediatric settings, you may regularly be providing hands-on and/or phone or virtual support to families. For example, a pediatrician or pediatric nurse practitioner may spend time at most newborn visits counseling families about feeding and offering support. A nurse-midwife may be providing education at prenatal visits, and then seeing patients for support postpartum.

A special consideration for providers is whether your current role will allow you to earn 1000 hours in 5 years. Providers have many demands on the limited time they are allotted for patient care, and lactation support is often very time-consuming. If your current role does not include lactation support, or does not include enough to get 1000 hours in 5 years, you may consider whether you can change jobs or alter your current role to provide more opportunities for working with families.

Note that unlike Pathway 3, in this Pathway your hours do not need to be mentored/supervised by a practicing IBCLC. Additionally, as your current license enables you to practice independently (or fairly independently, depending on the state in which you practice as an NP/CNM), you do not require supervision of any kind when earning your hours.

Keep in mind that simply providing lactation care as part of your job is adequate to qualify to sit the exam, but is often not adequate to feel prepared to practice independently. Think back to the training for your current role as a physician, NP, or CNM. How much did you learn from the mentorship of your instructors, clinical mentors, and early co-workers that informs how you practice today? While it is possible to become an IBCLC without ever even meeting another IBCLC, we advise against it! Reach out to local IBCLCs and ask to shadow them, even if just for a few days. As you’ve probably told your own students, “you don’t know what you don’t know. Shadowing a practicing IBCLC will help you identify areas for growth in your lactation consultant education, so that you can best serve your patients and help them achieve their feeding goals.

How you count your hours: Very few physicians, NPs, or CNMs who are not already IBCLCs are spending 100% of their time on lactation-related care! But if lactation care is part of your current role, IBLCE allows you to provide a good faith estimate of the amount of time you spend providing lactation care. They suggest keeping a weekly time log for several weeks. This will help you determine how much of your time you spend on average in lactation-related care. For example, a nurse-midwife who rounds on patients postpartum may find about 1 hour of every 12 hour shift is spent on lactation support. You may then use this calculator from IBLCE (downloads an Excel spreadsheet) to calculate your hours and determine how long it will take you to reach 1000. Make sure you can reach 1000 hours in 5 years’ time! (A job where you provide 1 hour of lactation support a week won’t be enough.)

Click here to learn even more about Pathway 1 for recognized health professionals.

Advantages with this Pathway:

  • You can complete your hours while you are working, as part of the job you already do.
  • You may be able to complete your hours fairly quickly if you are providing a lot of lactation support.

Why this Pathway might not be for you:

  • If your current job does not provide enough lactation hours, or you’ll take longer than you’d like to earn them, and you can’t find a way to increase that amount.
  • If you would prefer to learn from an IBCLC mentor (Pathways 2 or 3) vs. complete the clinical hours on your own (Pathway 1).

Pathway 1 for peer supporters

Pathway 1 for peer supporters is very similar to Pathway 1 for health care professionals. Again you must complete your Lactation Education (see above). But instead of earning your hours through your work, you earn them as a volunteer counselor for an IBLCE-recognized peer counseling organization.

How many hours you need: You must obtain at least 1000 hours of lactation-specific clinical experience as a peer counselor. These hours must take place in the 5 years before you apply to take the exam.

Where you can earn your hours: A full list of recognized organizations is here. Examples include, but are not limited to, La Leche League Leader, Breastfeeding USA counselor, or Dr Milk peer supporter.

How you count your hours: Currently, you are able to count these hours as a “flat rate”: 250 hours per year if you provide only telephone/online counseling, or 500 hours per year if you provide face-to-face support. (This will change on Jan 1st, 2022; from that point forward, you will be required to count your time on an hour-by-hour basis. More information from IBLCE here.) All of your hours must be completed in the 5 years immediately prior to the date you apply to take the exam.

Click here to learn even more about Pathway 1 for peer supporters 

Advantages with this Pathway:

  • Volunteer training is generally very low-cost or free.
  • You can earn your hours on your own time.
  • This role may open up opportunities for you to learn and interact with others in your peer support organization.
  • You will likely get to work with families with babies/children with a wide range of ages.

Why this Pathway might not be for you:

  • If you have never breastfed/chestfed/pumped for your own children, many organizations will not work with you as a peer counselor.
  • You may find the volunteer time commitment challenging.
  • And again, if you would prefer to learn from an IBCLC mentor, vs. complete the clinical hours on your own, you are better off doing Pathway 2 or Pathway 3.

Pathway 2

Pathway 2 programs are comprehensive academic programs – much more like the other formal health professions education we discussed at the beginning. Your Lactation Education (see above) and Clinical Hours (see above) should be provided as a package from your Pathway 2 program.

Some Pathway 2 programs are available via distance education; in others, you are required to be on-campus for education. You will also obtain at least 300 hours of lactation-specific clinical experience through mentorship with one or more practicing IBCLCs. Always verify before enrolling where and how the program will find and contract clinical mentors/sites for you. Please ensure that you will be able to obtain the clinical hours necessary in order to complete the program.

At NCSU, we are not a Pathway 2 program currently; you may find a list of Pathway 2 programs here

After you complete all of your requirements, you will be eligible to apply to take the IBCLC exam.

Advantages with Pathway 2:

  • This Pathway is often the fastest route to completion: many programs move students from start to finish in about a year.
  • It can be very helpful to have your program arrange all of your education and clinicals.
  • You receive direct mentorship from experienced IBCLCs, vs. trying to “figure it out as you go” in Pathway 1.

Why this Pathway might not be for you:

  • You may have difficulty finding a program that is available in your area and/or offers clinical rotations that work with your location and schedule.
  • Pathway 2 programs tend to be the most expensive route to IBCLC certification, which can present a financial barrier (some programs offer scholarships and/or financial aid, and your current employer may offer tuition assistance).

Pathway 3

In Pathway 3, just like all the other Pathways, you must complete your Lactation Education (see above) – our online course is an excellent fit for those completing Pathway 3. For clinical hours, you obtain hours through mentorship with one or more practicing IBCLCs.

How many hours you need: You must obtain at least 500 hours of mentored lactation clinical hours with an IBCLC mentor. These hours must take place in the 5 years before you apply to take the exam.

Where you can earn your hours: You may earn hours with any currently certified IBCLC. You may receive your training in any clinical setting (e.g. an IBCLC who solely runs a milk bank or only does research would not be a potential mentor). This may include hospitals, outpatient clinics, private practice, WIC nutrition programs, facilitation of support groups, and more. If you work alongside IBCLCs in your current setting, you may be able to arrange for mentorship with them.

How you count your hours: There are three phases to the clinical hours. In Phase 1, the mentee is on “observation-only” mode. In Phase 1 you become familiar with clinical IBCLC practice (but this does not count towards the 500 hours). You then become increasingly involved, hands-on, with clinical care (Phases 2 and 3). The mentee must accumulate 500 hours of practice time in Phase 2 and/or 3. All of your hours must be completed in the 5 years immediately prior to the date you apply to take the exam.

We have more details on Pathway 3 in this post. If you are planning to do Pathway 3, we advise you to wait to enroll in our course or any lactation education course until you feel confident you can find, or have found, mentorship. Please be sure you can complete your clinical hours as planned.

Advantages with Pathway 3:

  • Like Pathway 2, you receive direct mentorship from experienced IBCLCs, vs. trying to “figure it out as you go” in Pathway 1. Just like when you began your work in your current profession, you are able to learn from experienced clinicians.
  • Depending on how busy your mentor(s) is/are, you may be able to earn your hours fairly quickly.

Why this Pathway might not be for you:

  • In some areas, it can be difficult to find a Pathway 3 mentor.
  • Many mentors charge a fee for mentorship, which can be a financial barrier.
  • It may be difficult to arrange the schedule for mentored hours around your own, which may make earning hours go more slowly.

Please note that we offer Pathway 3 mentorship opportunities through NCSU, but students applying to that program must complete the on-campus, classroom-based courses first; those completing the online-only courses are not eligible to apply to our mentorship program at this time. For more information about our on-campus Pathway 3 program, contact us.

Taking the exam

Finally, with all the Pathways, you must take and pass the IBCLC exam.

The exam is offered in April and October of each year. You must apply to take the exam 6-8 months in advance of the exam date; the IBLCE website has upcoming deadlines. All of your education and clinical hours must be complete before you apply to sit the exam.

Once you’ve passed, congratulations! Welcome to the community of IBCLCs worldwide. There’s a lot to do, and we can’t wait for you to get started!

Have more questions?

Still not sure which IBCLC Pathway is right for you as a physician, NP, or CNM?

Still not sure how to become an IBCLC? Join check out our free live and recorded webinars on Pathways to IBCLC.

Ready to get started? Take a look at our 90-hour lactation education course – low-cost and self-paced, with personal attention from our expert instructors.

The world needs more IBCLCs, and we’re excited to help you along your way! 

What is a typical lactation consultant salary (IBCLC)?

As you research how to become a lactation consultant, you may also be looking into the financial side of things. We’ve discussed the typical costs of training and certifying as a lactation consultant, but what about once you actually certify and begin working? While you can google “lactation consultant salary”, the estimates provided by websites like Glassdoor or Indeed are often based off of a small number of people reporting salaries and/or salary ranges pulled from posted jobs that may mention lactation but not specifically be for an IBCLC. In addition, they are largely based on lactation consultant salaries for hospital-based IBCLCs, vary quite widely, and are not very specific to location – which can make a big difference. So let’s talk about how you might go about determining what you might earn as a lactation consultant.

The primary question you will need to answer as you go about investigating your lactation consultant salary potential is where you plan or hope to work: hospital, private practice, or other outpatient.

Lactation consultant salary: Hospital settings

If you would like to work in a hospital but don’t have a nursing background, you’ll want to read our post on how to research job opportunities for a non-RN in your area.

If you discover that there are good opportunities for you as hospital-based IBCLC, then you be able to get a much more solid estimate of salary potential. Part of your research can also be what IBCLC positions at those hospitals tend to pay. If you cannot find information for IBCLC-specific position pay, know that often pay will be similar to that of a staff nurse. However, a 2019 survey by the United States Lactation Consultant Association indicates that on average, non-RN IBCLCs employed in hospitals tend to make somewhat less than RN IBCLCs. (That same USLCA survey also offers some data on state-level hourly pay – but use caution with those numbers as the number of overall respondents is fairly small and this was a voluntary response survey.)

Hospital positions may be full-time or part-time, so another consideration is what type of positions the hospitals in your area tend to have available. A small hospital may not employ any full-time IBCLCs whereas a large hospital may employ multiple. Make this part of your research as well – would the salaries you’re looking at be full-time or part-time?

Lactation consultant salary: private practice

Many IBCLCs go into private practice, owning their own business (or sometimes collaborating with other local IBCLCs for a shared practice). As any business owner can tell you, income can be much more variable when you are out on your own. And it often takes a while to turn a profit after your initial investment in set-up.

See if other local private practice IBCLCs in the area are willing to share information about how busy they are, their rates, and their expenses. If they aren’t, or if there are no IBCLCs in private practice right now, you will need to do the math yourself. You need to calculate what you might reasonably be able to charge in your area and how many patients you might see on a weekly and monthly basis. Also think about additional services you may be able to offer, like prenatal classes. 

You then need to consider what your business costs will be. You can often start with a “bare bones” investment, and scale up your spending as your income increases. But there are unavoidable start-up costs including liability insurance, equipment/supplies including a high-quality feeding scale, a charting system, and often registering and maintaining an LLC. 

Other common costs include website design and hosting, marketing, continuing education, and secure e-mail and e-fax services. Paying for childcare while you are making visits may also be a factor. 

Once you have an idea of what income and expenses would be, you can estimate your anticipated take-home pay. (Don’t forget to estimate taxes as well, as you must pay those on your own as a self-employed person – they will not be automatically deducted the way they are via a regular employer.)

Again, the USLCA survey offers some data on self-reported private-practice hourly pay, but use even more caution with those numbers. The number of overall respondents is quite small, this was a voluntary response survey, and “hourly” is a difficult estimate in a private practice setting where an individual might work only 10-15 hours a week (note that over a third of respondents had 5 or fewer appointments per week).

Overall, in private practice it is important to be prepared to spend at least some period of time at the beginning of your practice working very part-time while you build a reputation and clientele. How busy you eventually become will depend greatly on your practice area and potential client base; some private practice IBCLCs are eventually able to work the equivalent of full-time. Others always see a limited number of patients per week. Consider whether this is a sustainable financial model, depending on your other sources of income.

Lactation consultant salary: other outpatient practice

IBCLCs work in all types of outpatient settings, including:

  • pediatric, OB-GYN, midwifery, and family practice offices
  • working with dentists or other frenotomy providers
  • freestanding birth centers
  • WIC clinics
  • pregnancy care centers
  • home visiting program for new parents
  • and more!

In the outpatient world, a lactation consultant salary will vary depending on setting and, again, whether you work full-time or part-time. If you are interested in working in these settings, take a look at what is an option in your area. For a rough estimate, often hourly rates might be similar to what the office would pay nursing or other clinical staff, but it will of course vary by office. In some settings it may be a percentage share of revenue brought in via billing your services to insurance (so the busier you are, the more revenue you generate for yourself and for the practice). You will need to do more research into potential practice settings if you are seriously considering them as a future place of employment.

Closing thoughts

As you can see, it isn’t necessarily simple to estimate what a lactation consultant salary might be! We hope this post has helped you understand more about why not to depend too much on Google “guesstimates”, and how to do your own research to get more accurate estimates for your specific area and desired practice setting. As you do this research, keep in mind what your needs are. A private practice seeing a couple patients per week at times you have childcare, bringing in a small but steady income, might be perfect for your life right now. On the other hand, maybe you need to make a much higher income and need the security of a full-time job. In that case, you will want to make sure the jobs available to you will meet your minimum needs.

If you know enough about the lactation opportunities in your area to decide that you’re ready to start your IBCLC training, check out our free live and recorded webinars on Pathways to IBCLC and our 90-hour lactation education course – low-cost and self-paced with personal attention from instructors. The world needs more IBCLCs, and we’re excited to help you along your way! 

How to become a lactation consultant (IBCLC): Pathway 1 for Peer Supporters

This is a post on Pathway 1 for Peer Supporters. Not sure whether that’s the right pathway for you? Check out the overview of all the pathways to see what fits your situation best.

Are you interested in becoming a lactation consultant, but confused on where to start? Many healthcare professions have a single clear pathway: take required prerequisite courses, enroll an accredited academic program, successfully complete their requirements (including clinical rotations and classes), graduate, and pass an exam.

As a healthcare professional, that’s probably pretty close to the route you followed. However, there are relatively few formal lactation consultant training programs; in fact, lactation consultants can choose from three possible pathways – and Pathway 1, which many health professionals pursue, can be especially confusing!

Feeling overwhelmed? Know that there are tens of thousands of IBCLCs in the world, who have each figured it out – you can, too, and we’re here to help!

Because NC State offers courses that are well-suited for those pursuing Pathway 1, we get a number of questions from people confused about whether they are able to pursue this pathway. So we’re breaking it down in this post, step-by-step.

This post is for peer supporters. The other category in Pathway 1 is for members of recognized health care professions. If you fit that description or want to learn more, click here for a post all about Pathway 1 for health care professionals.

For peer supporters, Pathway 1 has the following steps:

  • Obtain 1000 hours of “lactation specific clinical practice”
  • Complete education in the 14 Health Science subjects OR be an approved health care professional
  • Obtain 90 hours of lactation specific education
  • Obtain 5 hours of communication skills education (starting April 2021)
  • Take and pass the IBCLC exam

Let’s go through step-by-step! We have not numbered them as you do need to do them in any specific order, but note that your clinical practice hours and lactation specific education must be completed in the 5 years immediately prior to the date you apply to take the exam.

Obtain 1000 hours of “lactation specific clinical practice”

If you are doing Pathway 1 as a peer counselor, you must be part of an organization recognized by IBLCE. A full list of recognized organizations is here.

Examples include, but are not limited to, La Leche League Leader, Breastfeeding USA counselor, or Mom2Mom Global peer supporter.

You may also work (paid or unpaid) providing supervised lactation support in the following settings: a hospital, birth center, community clinic, lactation care clinic/practice, or primary care practitioner’s practice/office. Examples include a WIC Breastfeeding Peer Counselor who is supervised by an IBCLC, or a volunteer counselor who provides breastfeeding support in a birth center where they are supervised by midwives.

Currently, you are able to count these hours as a “flat rate”: 250 hours per year if you provide only telephone/online counseling, or 500 hours per year if you provide face-to-face support. (This will change on Jan 1st, 2022; from that point forward, you will be required to count your time on an hour-by-hour basis. More information from IBLCE here.)

All of your hours must be completed in the 5 years immediately prior to the date you apply to take the exam.

Complete education in the 14 Health Science subjects

If you are an approved health care professional (or will be by the time you become an IBCLC), you do not need to complete the requirements below (and you may also have the option to complete your training via Pathway 1 for health care professionals).

If you are not an approved health care professional, you must demonstrate that you have completed the courses below. These are courses which you may have taken as part of a degree program or individually. Many people take these online or through their local community college. (Note these cannot be non-credit courses; you must be earning academic credit for them to be accepted by IBLCE.) More details from IBLCE are available here.

Required college-level courses (8 total):

  • Biology
  • Human Anatomy
  • Human Physiology
  • Infant and Child Growth and Development
  • Introduction to Clinical Research
  • Nutrition
  • Psychology or Counseling Skills or Communication Skills
  • Sociology or Cultural Sensitivity or Cultural Anthropology

Required continuing education courses (6 total):

  • Basic Life Support
  • Medical Documentation
  • Medical Terminology
  • Occupational Safety and Security for Health Professionals
  • Professional Ethics for Health Professionals
  • Universal Safety Precautions and Infection Control

Obtain at least 90 hours of lactation-specific education

Either before or while you are accumulating your clinical hours, you should work on your lactation education. You may obtain these from in-person or online trainings or conferences that cover the core competencies from IBLCE. When evaluating these courses, consider whether they will give you an integrated overview of the knowledge you will need for clinical practice, and to prepare to sit the exam. NC State offers two online courses that give you all the hours you need, in a clear, sequential format, and taught by expert instructors; it’s the same course we teach in person for our lactation trainees.

Your 90 hours must be completed within the 5 years immediately prior to the date you apply to take the exam.

Obtain 5 hours of communication skills education (starting April 2021)

IBLCE is also adding a requirement for at least 5 hours of education in communication skills for those applying to sit the exam in April 2021 or later. While the exact nature of how those hours need to be documented is still unclear, NC State courses will cover those communication skills as part of our online courses.

Take and pass the IBCLC exam

The exam is offered in April and October of each year. You must apply to sit for the exam 6-8 months in advance of the exam date; the IBLCE website has upcoming deadlines. All of your education and clinical hours must be complete before you apply to sit the exam.

Once you’ve passed, congratulations! Welcome to the community of IBCLCs worldwide. There’s a lot to do, and we can’t wait for you to get started!

Have more questions? Still not sure which Pathway is right for you?

Join one of our free, live monthly webinars! Check out our Facebook events page and follow us on Facebook for announcements of upcoming dates. One of our expert instructors reviews the pathways in detail, including options for different lactation consultant training programs, and answers questions from attendees. Or watch our recorded webinar right now!

How to become a lactation consultant (IBCLC): Pathway 1 for Health Care Professionals

This is a post on Pathway 1 for Health Care Professionals. If you don’t fit that description, check out this post on Pathway 1 for Peer Supporters or this post for an overview of all the pathways!

Are you interested in becoming a lactation consultant, but confused on where to start? Many health care professions have a single clear pathway: take required prerequisite courses, enroll an accredited academic program, successfully complete their requirements (including clinical rotations and classes), graduate, and pass an exam.

Graphic illustrating typical pathway

As a health care professional, that’s probably pretty close to the route you followed. However, for lactation consultant education you can choose from three possible pathways – and Pathway 1, which many health professionals pursue, can be especially confusing!

Feeling overwhelmed? Know that there are tens of thousands of IBCLCs in the world, who have each figured it out – you can, too, and we’re here to help!

Because NC State offers courses that are well-suited for those pursuing Pathway 1, we get a number of questions from people confused about whether they are able to pursue this pathway for their lactation consultant education. So we’re breaking it down in this post, step-by-step.

First, assess whether you are one of the health professionals in the list of recognized professions by IBLCE. These recognized professions include:

  • Dentist
  • Dietitian
  • Midwife
  • Nurse
  • Occupational Therapist
  • Pharmacist
  • Physical Therapist or Physiotherapist
  • Physician or Medical Doctor
  • Speech Pathologist or Therapist

Not in one of these professions? The other category in Pathway 1 is for peer counselors providing support, in either a paid or unpaid capacity. If you would like to learn more about that, check out our post about Pathway 1 for peer counselors, or our post on understanding all the pathways, for people of any professional background.

If you are in one of those professions, Pathway 1 has the following steps:

  • Obtain 1000 hours of “lactation specific clinical practice”.
  • Obtain 90 hours of lactation specific education
  • Obtain 5 hours of communication skills education (starting April 2021)
  • Take and pass the IBCLC exam

Let’s go through step-by-step! We have not numbered them as you do need to do them in any specific order, but note that your clinical practice hours and lactation specific education must be completed in the 5 years immediately prior to the date you apply to take the exam.

Obtain 1000 hours of “lactation specific clinical practice”

If your current role includes lactation support:

Very few professionals who are not already IBCLCs are spending 100% of their time on lactation-related care! If this is part of your current role, IBLCE allows you to provide a good faith estimate of the amount of time you spend providing lactation care. Keeping a weekly time log for several weeks, as they suggest, will help you determine how much of your time you spend on average in lactation-related care. For example, a nurse on a labor and delivery unit may find about 1 hour of every 12 hour shift is spent on lactation support. You may then use this calculator from IBLCE (downloads an Excel spreadsheet) to calculate your hours and determine how long it will take you to reach 1000.

Keep in mind that simply providing lactation care as part of your job is adequate to qualify to sit the exam, but is often not adequate to feel prepared to practice independently. Think back to the training for your current role. How much did you learn from the mentorship of your instructors, clinical mentors, and early co-workers that informs how you practice today? While it is possible to become an IBCLC without ever even meeting another IBCLC, we advise against it! Reach out to local IBCLCs and ask to shadow them, even if just for a few days. As you’ve probably told your own students, “you don’t know what you don’t know,” and shadowing a practicing IBCLC will help you identify areas for growth in your lactation consultant education.

If your current role does not include lactation support, or does not include enough to get 1000 hours in 5 years:

Change your job: You may have a passion for lactation support, yet not have it in your current job description. How can you obtain your hours? Some may be able to shift into a role that will help them obtain their hours. For example, an SLP or OT currently working with adult inpatients might seek a transfer to a neonatal intensive care unit, a registered dietitian could apply for positions in WIC, or a nurse in a school setting might look for work in a pediatric office instead.

Obtain hours via a peer support role: If changing jobs is not possible, or if your specific profession makes it difficult to get hours in your job, you will have to obtain your hours outside of your job setting.  Many people do this by becoming a peer counselor for a recognized support organization – for example, physicians may become counselors for Dr. MILK, an organization that focuses on supporting physician parents. You may still use your professional background in place of the 14 required health science pre-requisites, but obtain your hours via peer support instead. The post on Pathway 1 for peer supporters describes in more detail how those hours are calculated currently, and how calculations will change in the future. It also links to the list of recognized peer support organizations.

Obtain hours via direct mentoring, possibly via Pathway 3: You may also seek mentoring from a local IBCLC. Hospital IBCLCs may offer mentorship, especially if you already work in the same hospital system. Local private practice or office-based IBCLCs are also potential mentors. Keep in mind that mentorship is a significant investment of time and energy for the IBCLC, so most will charge a fee for this service. If you will be obtaining more than half your hours this way, you will likely be better off switching to Pathway 3, as it requires a total of only 500 hours (since they are directly mentored). Again, you can still use your professional background in place of the pre-requisites, but will need to complete all the other requirements for Pathway 3. Want to learn more about Pathway 3, or confused about all the Pathways? Read through the overview of all the Pathways here, and an explanation of Pathway 3 here.

Enroll in a Pathway 2 program: Pathway 2 programs provide coursework and clinical mentoring all in one package (or should – always verify before enrolling that they will arrange clinical mentorship for you, and not expect you to arrange it yourself). Read more about Pathway 2 in our overview of all the Pathways.

Obtain at least 90 hours of lactation-specific education

Either before or while you are accumulating your clinical hours, you should work on your lactation specific education. You may obtain these from in-person or online trainings or conferences that cover the core competencies from IBLCE. When evaluating these courses, consider whether they will give you an integrated overview of the knowledge you will need for clinical practice, and to prepare to sit the exam. NC State offers two online courses that give you all the hours you need, in a clear, sequential format, and taught by expert instructors; it’s the same course we teach in person for our lactation trainees.

Obtain 5 hours of communication skills education (starting April 2021)

IBLCE is also adding a requirement for at least 5 hours of education in communication skills for those applying to sit the exam in April 2021 or later. While the exact nature of how those hours need to be documented is still unclear, NC State courses will cover those communication skills as part of our online courses.

Take and pass the IBCLC exam

The exam is offered in April and October of each year. You must apply to sit the exam 6-8 months in advance of the exam date; the IBLCE website lists upcoming deadlines. All of your education and clinical hours must be complete before you apply to sit the exam.

The clinical hours and lactation specific education must be complete in the 5 years immediately prior to the date you register to take the exam.

Once you’ve passed, congratulations! Welcome to the community of IBCLCs worldwide. There’s a lot to do, and we can’t wait for you to get started!

Have more questions? Still not sure which Pathway is right for you?

Join one of our free, live monthly webinars! Check out our Facebook events page and follow us on Facebook for announcements of upcoming dates. One of our expert instructors reviews the pathways in detail and answers questions from attendees. Or watch our prerecorded webinar right now!

Can I find a job as a lactation consultant if I’m not a nurse?

“Can I find a job as a lactation consultant if I’m not a nurse?”

This is one of the most commonly asked questions from aspiring IBCLCs. You may have gone online searching for information about lactation consultant jobs, and seen page after page of job listings in hospitals saying “RN required”. This naturally leads to the question of whether YOU can ever find employment as a lactation consultant, or whether you’d have to go to nursing school first.

So, can you find a job as a lactation consultant if you’re not a nurse? The answer is very often YES! At the end of this post, we have stories from non-RN lactation consultants who have built very successful professional careers! However, how it might look depends on your location, goals, and circumstances.

As you’ve probably already realized, lactation consultant training entails a serious commitment of time and money.

Before committing, ask yourself the following questions:

1. Ask yourself: Where do you WANT to work? Lactation consultants work in many settings: hospitals, medical offices or community clinics, WIC (a supplemental nutrition program for new families), and/or private practice. In each setting you will work with different populations, in different ways, at different stages. For example, in the hospital you will be working with mostly brand-new babies and families. In an office providing pediatric care, you will be seeing them as they get older and their needs change. Which settings speak most to you?

2. Ask yourself: Where do you NEED to work? Do you need a predictable flow of income by being employed by someone else, or can you manage the “feast or famine” of unpredictable income from private practice? This may vary greatly based on your/your family’s financial circumstances. Schedule flexibility may also factor into your plans: would fixed hours, rotating shifts, or an ever-changing consult schedule work for your life? Each work setting will offer something different.

Now that you have answers to those questions, it’s time to talk with other people to ask:

Where CAN you find a job as a lactation consultant if you’re not a nurse?

• If you’d like to go into private practice, there are no barriers to an IBCLC setting up a private practice, regardless of other credentials. (Note that this true if you live in the United States; research your local laws and regulations if you live outside the U.S.) But consider the demographics of your area: it is often difficult for lactation consultants to become in-network providers with insurance companies, which means patients have to pay you directly for care (and maybe get reimbursed later). Are people in your area able to pay for out-of-pocket for care? How many births are there, and how common is it for people to seek out lactation consultants? See if there are other private practice LCs in your area who would be willing to talk with you about the current landscape. Offer to pay them for their time – at the very least, offer to take them out for lunch to talk – since you are asking them to share professional expertise and hard-earned knowledge.

• If you’re interested in working in a hospital setting, reach out to LCs who are currently employed at your local hospital(s). Ask whether the department is open to hiring non-RN LCs. Just because they’ve never done it, and have always listed positions with an RN requirement, doesn’t mean they can’t change. More and more hospitals are realizing that they already employ physical therapists, occupational therapists, and other allied health care providers, none of whom are required to be RNs. Why would an IBCLC be any different? IBCLCs of all backgrounds can do excellent work in a hospital setting. If there are no LCs at your local hospital at all, see if you can speak with the nurse manager of the maternity unit. Discuss whether they would be interested in hiring LCs in the future.

• If you’d like to work in an outpatient setting like a medical office or clinic, talk with some of the people you’d like to work with. If you have kids, bring it up with their provider. Has the office ever employed an LC? Would they be interested? Feel out your possible practice settings.

• If WIC is an option for you, reach out to the breastfeeding coordinator at your local WIC office or for your area. Ask what the requirements are to be hired and how often they hire lactation consultants or  positions that involve some lactation support.

Note: Do you anticipate moving to a new area at some point? If you know where you might be headed, and plan to stay there long-term, consider repeating this process for those area(s). That will help you make a plan that is viable for your current location as well as for the future.

What if you discover your options ARE limited without an RN?

You might consider going to nursing school as part of your IBCLC pathway, but there are other credentials you might find useful as well. Speech language pathologists, occupational therapists, and registered dietitians all frequently work with infant feeding issues, and are a wonderful combination with an IBCLC credential. Unlike RNs, they are also able to become credentialed and bill insurance as independent providers, which makes it easier to go into private practice. Again, do your research and consider your options! This may be a longer journey than you anticipated, but yield even greater rewards.

Uncertain how to proceed? Still not sure you can find a job as a lactation consultant if you’re not a nurse?

For inspiration, and to help give you an idea of how your career might look, we asked some of our wonderful IBCLC colleagues to share their stories:

I am fortunate to live in the Philadelphia area, which is home to many hospitals that hire non-RN IBCLC’s. The benefits of being in an IBCLC-only role means you cannot be pulled to do RN floor work when things get busy, your focus remains strictly to help with breastfeeding. In turn this means more time, more attention, more support! Though these options are near me, I instead chose to form my own home-visit private practice. A service that is uncommon in my area, and highly requested by new parents! I built my practice from the ground up and was able to get in-network with major insurance companies to offer covered services. I now have a thriving business serving parents across three counties (and beyond!) in southern New Jersey.

Kara Thornton, BA, IBCLC
Via Lactea, LLC
www.vialacteanj.com

My background was not in the medical field, but rather at the feet of La Leche League leaders and midwives. I started my career as a doula, then became a Lamaze Educator. After having my first child, I felt ready to start my IBCLC journey. I now contract at a pediatric office and have my own private practice. I appreciate that the pediatric center I work with sees me as a valued provider. They were looking for an expert in the lactation field – not someone who could do double duty.

Karissa Binkley, IBCLC
Second Nature Lactation
www.secondnaturelactation.com

In addition to becoming an IBCLC, I have a background in public health and as a doula and childbirth educator. I was the second non-RN IBCLC hired at a large academic hospital – I was willing to work nights, which helped get me in the door! After working there for several years, I was hired to coordinate the lactation program at a large freestanding birth center. They appreciated my background in public health and interest in education, research, grant writing, and developing new programs. Since my family moved to a new state, I have started a private practice and online education program. I have also been a clinical mentor for students from a wide range of professional backgrounds, and seen them go on to work in a number of settings

Rebecca Costello, IBCLC
In the Flow Lactation
www.intheflowlactation.com

I have a private practice as an SLP and IBCLC. My work as a Speech Language Pathologist with a focus on feeding therapy led me to becoming an IBCLC. In my work as an Early Interventionist, I see young children with developmental delays, age 0-3, in the home environment. These two lines of work overlap in a variety of ways, from discussing pumping with a mother whose baby is fed via g-tube due to NPO status, to working on positioning accommodations for a baby with craniofacial differences, to educating on paced bottle feeding for a parent who is supplementing due to slow weight gain but desires to continue feeding at the breast. I also see clients for breastfeeding/lactation support exclusively in the home visit setting, and my work as an EI SLP informs my perspective when evaluating an infant’s oral anatomy and oro-functional skills, and gives me tools for counseling families on how to support their infant’s feeding skills. In my Early Intervention work, I bill all work for feeding, including lactation, using SLP feeding codes. For private lactation clients, parents pay me out of pocket and I provide a superbill for them to be reimbursed through their insurance. I also have a contract with our local Healthy Start coalition, which covers the cost of some lactation visits through grant funding. Adding the IBCLC credential to my practice allowed me to round out and fill in a knowledge gap which has better prepared me to support parent of infants in feeding their children, regardless of feeding method.

Amelia Fry, MS, CCC-SLP / IBCLC
Leif Therapies
leiftherapies.com

Do you have more questions about becoming a lactation consultant, or wonder how to get started? Check out our overview of the pathways to IBCLC, or our monthly free live webinars (this link will take you to our Facebook events page – follow us for announcements of upcoming webinars). We also have a prerecorded webinar that you can watch right now!

can I find a job as a lactation consultant if I'm not a nurse?

How do I become an IBCLC if I’m already a nurse?

It’s a question we see over and over again: “I’m a registered nurse (RN) and would like to become an IBCLC. Where do I start?”

As IBCLCs, we understand the experience of becoming enthralled with lactation and getting fired up to support families. Sometimes it takes just a single encounter with the field. Sometimes it’s a passion that develops over years. But either way, if you landed here because you’re excited about becoming a lactation consultant – we get it! And we get how confusing the route to becoming an IBCLC can feel.

Many RNs become interested in becoming IBCLCs, either through their professional experience working with families, personal experiences with their own children, or both! As a registered nurse, IBLCE considers you a “recognized health care professional”, which affects a few things about the options available to you on your pathway to IBCLC. So we’ve put together this guide to IBCLC especially for nurses! Let’s get started:

Understanding the IBCLC Pathways

Many health care professions, including nursing, usually have a single clear pathway: take required prerequisite courses, enroll in an accredited academic program, graduate, and pass an exam.

Graphic illustrating typical pathway

So you likely completed requirements to enroll in a nursing program, completed your classes and clinical rotations, and graduated from your program. You then studied and took your boards, and when you had passed you were officially a nurse!

However, lactation consultants can choose from three possible pathways – and Pathway 1 is actually split into two different categories!

Feeling overwhelmed? We’re here to help break it down, and think about which Pathways will make the most sense for you as a nurse.

Please note that your final word should always be the website of the International Board of Lactation Consultant Examiners (IBLCE). They set the standards and policies for IBCLC training, examination, and certification. Here is a flowsheet from IBLCE to help people navigate through the Pathways to certification.

So how to navigate the pathways to become an IBCLC as a nurse?

Common components of ALL Pathways

In each IBCLC Pathway, you must complete the following 4 components:

  1. Health Sciences Education: Either be an recognized health professional OR complete 14 prerequisite health science courses
  2. Lactation Education: Complete 90 hours of lactation-specific education, and 5 additional hours of communication skills specific to lactation
  3. Clinical Hours: Gain clinical experience in lactation care (number of hours varies based on the pathway)
  4. Exam: Take and pass the IBCLC exam (offered twice each year)

For 1, Health Sciences Education, you are considered to have fulfilled that requirement with your prior nursing education. Your status as a registered nurse will satisfy that requirement per IBLCE.

Given that, you just have to figure out how and where you will complete your lactation education and clinical hours. Below, we’ll go through all the Pathways and how they might look for a nurse:

Pathway 1 for health care professionals

In Pathway 1, just like all the other Pathways, you must complete your Lactation Education (see above) – our online course is an excellent fit for those completing Pathway 1. You then need to complete your clinical hours, which because you are a recognized health care professional, you may do as part of your work.

How many hours you need: For clinical hours, you must obtain at least 1000 hours of lactation-specific clinical experience in a supervised role. These hours must take place in the 5 years before you apply to take the exam.

Where you can earn your hours: As a nurse, you may already be working in a position where you can earn your hours. If you work in labor and delivery, postpartum, or pediatric settings, you may regularly be providing hands-on and/or phone or virtual support to families. However, if your current role does not include lactation support, or does not include enough to get 1000 hours in 5 years, you might consider changing jobs. For example, if you are a nurse on a medical/surgical floor, you might seek out jobs in the postpartum unit instead. Or if you are a nurse working in a medical office for adults, you might seek out a pediatric outpatient practice instead.

Note that unlike Pathway 3, in this Pathway your hours do not need to be mentored/supervised by a practicing IBCLC. You must be in a supervised role – you cannot simply go out and start helping people with breastfeeding on your own and count those hours! However, your supervisor does not need to be an IBCLC. Your nurse manager or other direct supervisor is fine.

How you count your hours: Very few professionals who are not already IBCLCs are spending 100% of their time on lactation-related care! But if lactation care is part of your current role, IBLCE allows you to provide a good faith estimate of the amount of time you spend providing lactation care. They suggest keeping a weekly time log for several weeks. This will help you determine how much of your time you spend on average in lactation-related care. For example, a nurse on a labor and delivery unit may find about 1 hour of every 12 hour shift is spent on lactation support. You may then use this calculator from IBLCE (downloads an Excel spreadsheet) to calculate your hours and determine how long it will take you to reach 1000. Make sure you can reach 1000 hours in 5 years’ time! (A job where you provide 1 hour of lactation support a week won’t be enough.)

Click here to learn even more about Pathway 1 for recognized health professionals.

Advantages with this Pathway:

  • You can complete your hours while you are working, as part of the job you already do.
  • You may be able to complete your hours fairly quickly if you are providing a lot of lactation support.

Why this Pathway might not be for you:

  • If your current job does not provide enough lactation hours, or you’ll take longer than you’d like to earn them, and you can’t or don’t want to switch to a new job.
  • If you would prefer to learn from an IBCLC mentor (Pathways 2 or 3) vs. complete the clinical hours on your own (Pathway 1).

Pathway 1 for peer supporters

Pathway 1 for peer supporters is very similar to Pathway 1 for health care professionals. Again you must complete your Lactation Education (see above). But instead of earning your hours through your work, you earn them as a volunteer counselor for an IBLCE-recognized peer counseling organization.

How many hours you need: You must obtain at least 1000 hours of lactation-specific clinical experience as a peer counselor. These hours must take place in the 5 years before you apply to take the exam.

Where you can earn your hours: A full list of recognized organizations is here. Examples include, but are not limited to, La Leche League Leader, Breastfeeding USA counselor, or Mom2Mom Global peer supporter.

How you count your hours: Currently, you are able to count these hours as a “flat rate”: 250 hours per year if you provide only telephone/online counseling, or 500 hours per year if you provide face-to-face support. (This will change on Jan 1st, 2022; from that point forward, you will be required to count your time on an hour-by-hour basis. More information from IBLCE here.) All of your hours must be completed in the 5 years immediately prior to the date you apply to take the exam.

Click here to learn even more about Pathway 1 for peer supporters 

Advantages with this Pathway:

  • Volunteer training is generally very low-cost or free.
  • You can earn your hours on your own time.
  • This role may open up opportunities for you to learn and interact with others in your peer support organization.
  • You will likely get to work with families with babies/children with a wide range of ages.

Why this Pathway might not be for you:

  • If you have never breastfed/chestfed/pumped for your own children, many organizations will not work with you as a peer counselor.
  • You may find the volunteer time commitment challenging.
  • And again, if you would prefer to learn from an IBCLC mentor, vs. complete the clinical hours on your own, you are better off doing Pathway 2 or Pathway 3.

Pathway 2

Pathway 2 programs are comprehensive academic programs – much more like the other formal health professions education we discussed at the beginning. Your Lactation Education (see above) and Clinical Hours (see above) should be provided as a package from your Pathway 2 program.

Some Pathway 2 programs are available via distance education; in others, you are required to be on-campus for education. You will also obtain at least 300 hours of lactation-specific clinical experience through mentorship with one or more practicing IBCLCs. Always verify before enrolling where and how the program will find and contract clinical mentors/sites for you. Please ensure that you will be able to obtain the clinical hours necessary in order to complete the program.

At NCSU, we are not a Pathway 2 program currently; you may find a list of Pathway 2 programs here

After you complete all of your requirements, you will be eligible to apply to take the IBCLC exam.

Advantages with Pathway 2:

  • This Pathway is often the fastest route to completion: many programs move students from start to finish in about a year.
  • It can be very helpful to have your program arrange all of your education and clinicals.
  • You receive direct mentorship from experienced IBCLCs, vs. trying to “figure it out as you go” in Pathway 1.

Why this Pathway might not be for you:

  • You may have difficulty finding a program that is available in your area and/or offers clinical rotations that work with your location and schedule.
  • Pathway 2 programs tend to be the most expensive route to IBCLC certification, which can present a financial barrier (some programs offer scholarships and/or financial aid, and your current employer may offer tuition assistance).

Pathway 3

In Pathway 3, just like all the other Pathways, you must complete your Lactation Education (see above) – our online course is an excellent fit for those completing Pathway 3. For clinical hours, you obtain hours through mentorship with one or more practicing IBCLCs.

How many hours you need: You must obtain at least 500 hours of mentored lactation clinical hours with an IBCLC mentor. These hours must take place in the 5 years before you apply to take the exam.

Where you can earn your hours: You may earn hours with any currently certified IBCLC. You may receive your training in any clinical setting (e.g. an IBCLC who solely runs a milk bank or only does research would not be a potential mentor). This may include hospitals, outpatient clinics, private practice, WIC nutrition programs, facilitation of support groups, and more. If you work alongside IBCLCs in your current setting, you may be able to arrange for mentorship with them.

How you count your hours: There are three phases to the clinical hours. In Phase 1, the mentee is on “observation-only” mode. In Phase 1 you become familiar with clinical IBCLC practice (but this does not count towards the 500 hours). You then become increasingly involved, hands-on, with clinical care (Phases 2 and 3). The mentee must accumulate 500 hours of practice time in Phase 2 and/or 3. All of your hours must be completed in the 5 years immediately prior to the date you apply to take the exam.

We have more details on Pathway 3 in this postIf you are planning to do Pathway 3, we advise you to wait to enroll in our course or any lactation education course until you feel confident you can find, or have found, mentorship. Please be sure you can complete your clinical hours as planned.

Advantages with Pathway 3:

  • Like Pathway 2, you receive direct mentorship from experienced IBCLCs, vs. trying to “figure it out as you go” in Pathway 1. Just like when you began your work as a nurse, you are able to learn from experienced clinicians.
  • Depending on how busy your mentor(s) is/are, you may be able to earn your hours fairly quickly.

Why this Pathway might not be for you:

  • In some areas, it can be difficult to find a Pathway 3 mentor.
  • Many mentors charge a fee for mentorship, which can be a financial barrier.
  • It may be difficult to arrange the schedule for mentored hours around your own, which may make earning hours go more slowly.

Please note that we offer Pathway 3 mentorship opportunities through NCSU, but students applying to that program must complete the on-campus, classroom-based courses first; those completing the online-only courses are not eligible to apply to our mentorship program at this time. For more information about our on-campus Pathway 3 program, contact us.

Taking the exam

Finally, with all the Pathways, you must take and pass the IBCLC exam
The exam is offered in April and October of each year. You must apply to take the exam 6-8 months in advance of the exam date; the IBLCE website has upcoming deadlines. All of your education and clinical hours must be complete before you apply to sit the exam.

Once you’ve passed, congratulations! Welcome to the community of IBCLCs worldwide. There’s a lot to do, and we can’t wait for you to get started!

Have more questions? Still not sure which IBCLC Pathway is right for you as a nurse?

Still not sure how to become an IBCLC as a nurse? Join one of our free, live monthly webinars! Check out our Facebook events page and follow us on Facebook for announcements of upcoming dates. One of our expert instructors reviews the pathways in detail and answers questions from attendees. Or you can watch our recorded webinar right now!

How do I become an IBCLC if I have no health care background?

Interested in becoming an IBCLC, but have no health care background?

We hear variations on this question often: “I have a degree in accounting… in theater… in communications… I work as an admin assistant… as a teacher… as a sales rep… I’m a stay-at-home parent… I have no health care background but I would like to become an IBCLC. Can I become an IBCLC? Where do I start?”

As IBCLCs, we understand the experience of becoming enthralled with lactation and getting fired up to support families. Sometimes it takes just a single encounter with the field. Sometimes it’s a passion that develops over years. But either way, if you landed here because you’re excited about becoming a lactation consultant – we get it! And we get how confusing the route to becoming an IBCLC can feel.

So first of all: yes, you can become an IBCLC regardless of your prior work and education! IBCLCs are health care professionals, but you don’t need to be one before you start – you become a health care professional through your IBCLC education and training. And where do you start? We’ve put together a guide just for you! Let’s get started:

Understanding the IBCLC Pathways

Many health care professions usually have a single clear pathway: take required prerequisite courses, enroll in an accredited academic program, graduate, and pass an exam.

Graphic illustrating typical pathway

However, lactation consultants can choose from three possible pathways – and Pathway 1 is actually split into two different categories!

Feeling overwhelmed? We’re here to help break it down.

Please note that your final word should always be the website of the International Board of Lactation Consultant Examiners (IBLCE). They set the standards and policies for IBCLC training, examination, and certification. Here is a flowsheet from IBLCE to help people navigate through the Pathways to certification.

So how to navigate the pathways to become an IBCLC if you are not already a health care professional?

(You may also be interested in our posts on estimating the costs of becoming an IBCLC and on whether you can find a job as an IBCLC if you’re not a nurse.)

Common components of ALL Pathways

In each IBCLC Pathway, you must complete the following 4 components:

  1. Health Sciences Education: Either be a recognized health professional OR complete 14 prerequisite health science courses (given that you are not a health care professional, you will need to complete the prerequisite courses)
  2. Lactation Education: Complete 90 hours of lactation-specific education, and 5 additional hours of communication skills specific to lactation
  3. Clinical Hours: Gain clinical experience in lactation care (number of hours varies based on the pathway)
  4. Exam: Take and pass the IBCLC exam (offered twice each year)

Let’s go through each of the IBCLC Pathways and see how they might apply to someone who is not a health care professional:

Pathway 1

There are two options in Pathway 1: for health care professionals, and for peer supporters. As you’re not a health care professional, you would have the option of the peer supporter route.

Pathway 1 for peer supporters

In Pathway 1 for peer supporters, you must complete your 14 health science prerequisites (see above) and your Lactation Education (see above). You earn your clinical hours as a volunteer counselor for an IBLCE-recognized peer counseling organization.

How many hours you need: You must obtain at least 1000 hours of lactation-specific clinical experience as a peer counselor. These hours must take place in the 5 years before you apply to take the exam.

Where you can earn your hours: A full list of recognized organizations is here. Examples include, but are not limited to, La Leche League Leader, Breastfeeding USA counselor, or Mom2Mom Global peer supporter.

How you count your hours: Currently, you are able to count these hours as a “flat rate”: 250 hours per year if you provide only telephone/online counseling, or 500 hours per year if you provide face-to-face support. (This will change on Jan 1st, 2022; from that point forward, you will be required to count your time on an hour-by-hour basis. More information from IBLCE here.) All of your hours must be completed in the 5 years immediately prior to the date you apply to take the exam.

Click here to learn even more about Pathway 1 for peer supporters 

Advantages with this Pathway: Volunteer training is generally very low-cost or free. You can earn your hours on your own time. This role may open up opportunities for you to learn and interact with others in your peer support organization. You will likely get to work with families with babies/children with a wide range of ages.

Why this Pathway might not be for you: If you have never breastfed/chestfed/pumped for your own children, many organizations will not work with you as a peer counselor. You may find the volunteer time commitment challenging. And if you would prefer to learn from an IBCLC mentor vs. complete the clinical hours on your own, you are better off doing Pathway 2 or Pathway 3.

Pathway 2

Pathway 2 programs are comprehensive academic programs – much more like the other formal health professions education we discussed at the beginning. Your Lactation Education (see above) and Clinical Hours (see above) should be provided as a package from your Pathway 2 program. (You are generally required to complete your health science prerequisite courses before enrolling, although individual program requirements will vary.)

Some Pathway 2 programs are available via distance education; in others, you are required to be on-campus for education. You will also obtain at least 300 hours of lactation-specific clinical experience through mentorship with one or more practicing IBCLCs. Always verify before enrolling where and how the program will find and contract clinical mentors/sites for you. Please ensure that you will be able to obtain the clinical hours necessary in order to complete the program.

At NCSU, we are not a Pathway 2 program currently; you may find a list of Pathway 2 programs here

After you complete all of your requirements, you will be eligible to apply to take the IBCLC exam.

Advantages with Pathway 2: This Pathway is often the fastest route to completion: many programs move students from start to finish in about a year. It can be very helpful to have your program arrange all of your education and clinicals. You receive direct mentorship from experienced IBCLCs, vs. trying to “figure it out as you go” in Pathway 1.

Why this Pathway might not be for you: You may have difficulty finding a program that is available in your area and/or offers clinical rotations that work with your location and schedule. Pathway 2 programs tend to be the most expensive route to IBCLC certification, which can present a financial barrier (some programs offer scholarships and/or financial aid).

Pathway 3

In Pathway 3, just like all the other Pathways, you must complete your 14 health science prerequisites (see above) and your Lactation Education (see above) – our online course is an excellent fit for those completing Pathway 3. For clinical hours, you obtain hours through mentorship with one or more practicing IBCLCs.

How many hours you need: You must obtain at least 500 hours of mentored lactation clinical hours with an IBCLC mentor. These hours must take place in the 5 years before you apply to take the exam.

Where you can earn your hours: You may earn hours with any currently certified IBCLC. You may receive your training in any clinical setting (e.g. an IBCLC who solely runs a milk bank or only does research would not be a potential mentor). This may include hospitals, outpatient clinics, private practice, WIC nutrition programs, facilitation of support groups, and more. If you work alongside IBCLCs in your current setting, you may be able to arrange for mentorship with them.

How you count your hours: There are three phases to the clinical hours. In Phase 1, the mentee is on “observation-only” mode. In Phase 1 you become familiar with clinical IBCLC practice (but this does not count towards the 500 hours). You then become increasingly involved, hands-on, with clinical care (Phases 2 and 3). The mentee must accumulate 500 hours of practice time in Phase 2 and/or 3. All of your hours must be completed in the 5 years immediately prior to the date you apply to take the exam.

We have more details on Pathway 3 in this postIf you are planning to do Pathway 3, we advise you to wait to enroll in our course or any lactation education course until you feel confident you can find, or have found, mentorship. Please be sure you can complete your clinical hours as planned.

Advantages with Pathway 3: Like Pathway 2, you receive direct mentorship from experienced IBCLCs, vs. trying to “figure it out as you go” in Pathway 1. Depending on how busy your mentor(s) is/are, you may be able to earn your hours fairly quickly.

Why this Pathway might not be for you: In some areas, it can be difficult to find a Pathway 3 mentor. Many mentors charge a fee for mentorship, which can be a financial barrier. And it may be difficult to arrange the schedule for mentored hours around your own, which may make earning hours go more slowly.

Please note that we offer Pathway 3 mentorship opportunities through NCSU, but students applying to that program must complete our on-campus, classroom-based courses first; those completing the online-only courses are not eligible to enroll in our mentorship program at this time. For more information about our on-campus Pathway 3 program, contact us.

Taking the exam

Finally, with all the Pathways, you must take and pass the IBCLC exam
The exam is offered in April and October of each year. You must apply to sit for the exam 6-8 months in advance of the exam date; the IBLCE website has upcoming deadlines. All of your education and clinical hours must be complete before you apply to sit the exam.

Once you’ve passed, congratulations! Welcome to the community of IBCLCs worldwide. There’s a lot to do, and we can’t wait for you to get started!

Have more questions? Still not sure which IBCLC Pathway is right for you?

Still not sure how to become an IBCLC without being a health care professional? Join one of our free, live monthly webinars! Check out our Facebook events page and follow us on Facebook for announcements of upcoming dates. One of our expert instructors reviews the pathways in detail and answers questions from attendees. Or you can watch our recorded webinar right now!

How to reach out to a potential IBCLC mentor (and how NOT to!)

Many IBCLCs have received e-mails and messages from aspiring lactation consultants who are looking for an IBCLC mentor (generally for Pathway 3, which requires a currently certified IBCLC to mentor 500 clinical hours). Some of those e-mails have started productive conversations about mentorship possibilities – and others have not. We want to help you reach out to potential mentors in a way that starts a conversation, not ends it!

Writing an e-mail to a prospective IBCLC mentor can feel daunting, especially with the stakes feeling so high. We wanted to offer some tips for those looking for clinical hours on how to reach out to a potential mentor, along with examples of what NOT to write and what TO write.

Not sure how to find potential mentors? Check our post on 9 ways to find a Pathway 3 mentor. Already identified some candidates? Then keep reading!

Before you start drafting an e-mail to a potential IBCLC mentor

Understand the IBCLC pathways, the education requirements, and formulate a plan for completion. Don’t start by reaching out to an IBCLC to ask for both mentorship AND a personalized lesson on the Pathways system! You can find free resources for understanding the pathways on the IBLCE website, take a look at our overview of the pathways, and/or sign up for a free webinar here.

Get involved with your local community. Show up to local and state breastfeeding coalition meetings, go to gatherings like World Breastfeeding Week events, and volunteer if you can. These are organizations you will hopefully become even more deeply involved with as a lactation student and then IBCLC – starting now will be an excellent learning experience, show potential mentors your interest, and help you network.

Use your network to identify prospective mentors. Ask around – who has taken students in the past? Who might be open to taking them? Do you have mutual contacts who can help you connect with possible mentors? Being able to reference a personal connection can help in your introduction.

Feeling prepared and networked? Identified a possible mentor and ready to send out a message?

How to craft an effective introduction to a potential IBCLC mentor:

Step 1: Begin with a formal introduction. You are seeking a mentor, and you will represent that person in your interactions with their clients, colleagues, and community. Show them that you understand how to address people professionally when contacting them for the first time.

Step 2: Explain how you heard about them and why you are contacting them.

Step 3: Explain your background. How did you get interested in lactation support? What work or volunteering have you done so far? What is your education to this point? What steps have you taken down your chosen Pathway? You are asking someone to invest significant time and resources in you. Many lactation consultants have the experience of getting an e-mail saying “I’m looking for a  mentor because I decided yesterday I should be a lactation consultant!”, which communicates excitement – but not commitment. Show them that you are serious about this career, that you have done the research to understand exactly what you need to do, and that you have already begun the work. See above for what to research before you start drafting your message.

Step 3: Explain what you would like to do as an IBCLC. Where do you hope to work? What unmet need will you be filling? What research have you done to see that you can be successful and sustainable in that plan? Again, your potential mentor will be investing in you. Show them that their investment will pay off in a realistic plan to serve families.

Step 4: Explain what you are looking for (for example, a primary or secondary mentor, how many hours you need) and share a little bit about your schedule (how flexible you are, what hours you have available). Ask if they have an application process for trainees, and whether they have any fees or other work expectations for trainees. This gives them information they’ll need to answer your initial inquiry.

Step 5: Thank them for their time and sign off formally. Again, show them you are professional and serious about your career, and their possible role as your mentor!

 Not sure where to go with this advice? Take a look at a couple examples below:

Example of an e-mail that is less likely to get a positive response:

“Hi! My friend said I should get in touch with you. I’ve breastfed both of my kids and I’m so passionate about helping other people be successful. I want to become an IBCLC and I’m working on finding someone to get my hours with. I would love to do them with your practice – she says you guys are great! I’m hoping to be done by next year because I want to take the test then. Thanks!”

Example of an e-mail that is more likely to generate a response:

“Dear …

My name is Alex Mentee and I am contacting you about possible Pathway 3 mentorship. My friend Amy said she had spoken with you, and that you suggested I get in touch. I am currently completing my Master’s in Nutrition at State U and will take the exam to become a Registered Dietitian next month. As part of my training, I spent time with WIC IBCLCs and peer counselors and loved the work they did. I am so passionate about the importance of breastmilk as a baby’s first nutrition, and I loved helping families overcome the barriers to breastfeeding. Through that work, I also got a chance to attend State Breastfeeding Coalition’s annual meeting and have joined their Ban the Bags committee. I have already signed up for an online course to complete my 90 hours of lactation education, and have completed the first 20 hours.

If I can become an IBCLC, I hope to become a WIC Breastfeeding Coordinator to serve families through the WIC program. I have also thought about opening a private practice, as I could bill insurance for lactation visits as an RD. I talked to a family friend in another state who has a successful practice doing this.

I considered pursuing Pathway 1, but I am not sure I will be able to obtain my hours through my work, and I would like to get my hours with an IBCLC mentor. I’m not sure what my schedule will be yet since I am still applying to jobs, but I hope to work part-time so that I can complete my clinical hours while working. If you accept trainees, what is your application process, and do you have any fees or work expectations for trainees?

Thank you so much for your time. 

Best,

Alex Mentee”

Closing thoughts

Remember: even if the people you are contacting do not become your mentors, they may well be your future colleagues. Showing professionalism, commitment, and an understanding of the process in your messages to them will help you both in finding mentorship, and in your future relationships with your local community. It’s worth the time to get it right!

Note that many mentors require you to have completed some or all of your education before you begin clinical hours. If you’ve found a mentor and are ready to get started with your lactation education, check out our courses – online, self-paced education ideal for those completing Pathway 3.

We hope this guidance helps you in your journey to finding mentorship and becoming an IBCLC – we’re excited to see where you go!

9 ways to find an IBCLC mentor for Pathway 3

Why do you need a mentor for Pathway 3?

To become an IBCLC via Pathway 3, you first need to figure out how to find an IBCLC mentor. This is because in Pathway 3, clinical experience is obtained through mentorship with a practicing IBCLC. This is different than Pathway 1, in which clinical experience must be supervised in some way, but not mentored (and the supervision does not need to be from an IBCLC). It is also different from Pathway 2, in which IBCLC mentorship is usually built into the program. In Pathway 3, you are often designing your own program and must find an IBCLC mentor yourself.

Who can be a Pathway 3 mentor?

As outlined in IBLCE’s Pathway 3 Plan Guide, the mentor must be an IBCLC in good standing who will allow the mentee both to observe their practice (Phase 1) and then to become involved, hands-on, with clinical care (Phases 2 and 3). The mentee must accumulate 500 hours of practice time in Phase 2 and/or 3 before they can sit for the exam (i.e., they cannot count the hours they spend in shadowing/observation). 

You may receive your training in any clinical setting (e.g. an IBCLC who solely runs a milk bank or only does research would not be a potential mentor). This can  include hospitals, outpatient clinics, private practice, WIC nutrition programs, and more.

Along with actively teaching the mentee in clinical visits/care, the mentor must also complete forms, may assign additional readings or learning activities, and verify clinical hours. This means that when you are looking for a mentor, you are looking for someone who will serve as a teacher and guide. In that role, your mentor will do a significant amount of work. They also need to have a practice that is busy/consistent enough to give you the number of hours you need to sit the exam. 

So how can you find the IBCLCs in your area who may be potential Pathway 3 mentors?

Check to see if you can find people who have already expressed their willingness to mentor:

  • Search directories specifically set up to help students find an IBCLC mentor for Pathway 3, currently available from USLCA, with plans to add a directory soon in the Lactworld Facebook group
  • Search online directories of IBCLCs, available from ILCA and USLCA (note – only paying members of those professional organizations are listed, so the directories are not comprehensive). Take note of any IBCLCs in your area.
  • Search “IBCLC mentor + [your city]” “IBCLC mentor + [your state]” to see if anyone comes up – some (but by no means all) potential mentors list this as a service on their website.
  • Look for programs that arrange Pathway 3 mentoring; these may be located at hospitals, independent lactation training programs, and/or universities. (Please note that while NC State’s all-online classes are an excellent fit for those completing Pathway 3, if you are specifically hoping to apply to NCSU’s Pathway 3 mentorship program you must first complete the on-campus courses. For more information about our on-campus Pathway 3 program, contact us.)

If you need to, expand your search to identify other IBCLCs in your area:

  • Be part of the community: show up to local and state breastfeeding coalition meetings, go to gatherings like World Breastfeeding Week events, and volunteer if possible. This will help you meet IBCLCs who may be or know potential mentors.
  • Search “IBCLC + [your city]” and note any names that come up – this is often a good way to find IBCLCs in private practice, but may not find those practicing in other settings.
  • Use local resource directories for new families, like those given out at birthing hospitals, pediatricians’ offices, and peer support groups like La Leche League, to see if they list practicing IBCLCs.
  • Call and/or check websites of area hospitals, WIC offices, and pediatric offices to see if there are IBCLCs employed.

Some things to keep in mind as you search for potential mentors:

  • Fees: Many (although not all) mentors will charge a fee for mentorship. This reflects the fact that you are essentially hiring them as your personal teacher and coach. You are not just “following them around” or “helping them”, as some people perceive. Instead, a good mentor will be doing a significant amount of additional work by guiding and teaching you. Fees for mentorship can vary widely – check out our post on becoming a lactation consultant on a budget if you’re wondering about the range.
  • Hospital-based IBCLCs: Even if you find a willing mentor at a hospital, it may be difficult for them to get approval from their administration for you, as a private individual, to train with them. If this becomes an issue, you may have more success going through an organization or school that has a formal Pathway 3 mentorship program; they can often set up institutional agreements with hospitals more easily.
  • Private practice IBCLCs: If your mentor is in private practice, they may be contemplating what will happen if they train you, and then you become an IBCLC serving the same community. For some people, this would come as a relief: “I have so much work, I am way too busy, and I would love someone to share the load!” For others, especially those in very small communities, they may feel this would put an unsustainable financial pressure on their business: “I am already struggling to stay afloat with the number of clients I have. If someone else takes half of that business, I will not be able to keep doing this work.” If they feel that way, you should also consider whether you could make a living in private practice in that same community. Keep in mind that you might serve a different part of the community, or provide care differently than they do, meaning more people would seek lactation care overall – there are many factors to consider. But it is a concern for many IBCLCs in private practice, and one to be aware of as you approach them.

Once you’ve identified some potential mentors, it’s time to reach out to them. Do this thoughtfully and after preparation. Consider how you would obtain your 90 hours of lactation education (for an all-online, interactive option, check out NCSU’s courses), think about where/how you plan to practice, and make sure you understand the Pathway 3 requirements thoroughly. Once you’ve identified some possible mentors, read our guide to reaching out before you send that first message.

It can be difficult to find an IBCLC mentor for Pathway 3; you may discover that your nearest potential mentorship sites are too far away and/or that the cost is too high. If this is the case, you may consider exploring Pathway 1 instead.

Have you done a lot of reading but are still confused about how all this could work? Check out our live free webinars – every month, we review all the Pathways and answer any and all of your questions. See upcoming dates and register here.