How to become a lactation consultant (IBCLC): Pathway 3

How to become a lactation consultant (IBCLC): Pathway 3

How to become a lactation consultant (IBCLC): Pathway 3

This is a post on how to become an IBCLC via Pathway 3. 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.

Graphic illustrating typical pathway

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:

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 3, we get a number of questions from people confused about whether and how they can pursue this pathway. So we’re breaking it down in this post, step-by-step. (Have even more questions after you’re done? We’ll have a link at the end to our free webinars!)

Pathway 3  has the following steps:

  • Obtain 500 hours of mentored “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 500 hours of mentored “lactation specific clinical practice”

In Pathway 3, clinical experience is obtained through mentorship with a practicing IBCLC. As outlined in IBLCE’s Pathway 3 Plan Guide, the mentor must be an IBCLC in good standing. 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.

There are three phases to the clinical hours. In Phase 1, the mentee is on “observation-only” mode to become familiar with clinical IBCLC practice (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.

The mentor may also have their own educational program for the mentee to follow; many mentors assign additional readings, learning activities, and projects to develop your skills and knowledge as an IBCLC.

It can be hard to know what to expect in terms of setting up mentorship; see our posts on how to find a mentor, how to reach out to prospective mentors, and what you might expect to pay a mentor.

Once you have found a mentor or mentors, you will complete a fairly simple form for IBLCE called your Pathway 3 Plan. This will outline how you plan to obtain your hours. Your mentor(s) will sign off on it, and then you will submit it to IBLCE for approval. This process can take 3-6 weeks. Once you have received your approval, you may officially begin your hours. (Hours completed prior to Pathway 3 plan approval cannot be counted in your 500 hours total, but you may begin shadowing your mentor(s) prior to that if desired.)

Complete education in the 14 Health Science subjects (or be an approved health care professional)

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 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!