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

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!