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.
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:
- Occupational Therapist
- 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!