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Working as a lactation consultant

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Breastfeeding is the most natural way to feed an infant, but as many new mothers will tell you, just because it's natural doesn't mean it comes easily. It can be a struggle to get started, and the problems that can crop up are truly daunting: inadequate milk supply, babies who don't gain enough weight, clogged milk ducts, mastitis (inflammation of the mammary glands) and sore, cracked or bleeding nipples. Lactation consultants help mothers and babies conquer these and other obstacles so that they can breastfeed successfully.

What they do:
Lactation consultants work in hospitals, pediatrician's offices, clinics and private practice, as well as other health care settings. They use a variety of techniques to make breastfeeding easier for mothers and babies, including showing mothers how to position the baby, and encouraging the baby to latch on to the breast correctly.

Depending on what the new family needs, the consultant may also provide information about milk storage, pumping or techniques to stimulate lactation -- for example the supplemental nursing system, which allows the mother to nurse while at the same time providing a thin stream of formula through a tiny tube. The services of lactation consultants are especially important when babies are in the neonatal intensive care unit and can't be breastfed right away.

Part of a lactation consultant's also job involves educating families about the benefits of breastfeeding, which have been much touted in the medical field. Though it's hard for scientists to conduct the kind of randomized, controlled trials on new babies that would conclusively prove the benefits of breastfeeding, numerous observational studies have found that breastfeeding has been associated with reduced risk of obesity, diabetes, childhood leukemia and other diseases. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of a baby's life, followed by a mix of breastfeeding and complementary foods through the first year -- or longer, if the mom and baby are up for it.

What they need:
Many lactation consultants are also registered nurses or licensed practical nurses with experience in pediatrics, labor and delivery, or a related specialty. At a minimum, lactation consultants need a background in nursing or care for mothers and newborn babies.

But employers often require certification, which is available through the International Board of Lactation Consultant Examiners. The organization offers three pathways to certification: graduation from an accredited academic program, clinical practice (available only to health professionals or those with health education credits already completed) and direct supervision and mentorship (also only available to certain qualified candidates). A certification exam follows the training period.

What they earn:
According to, the national average salary for a lactation consultant is $79,141, with the 25th percentile at $63,409 and the 75th percentile at $98,417. 

Job outlook:
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the federal agency that keeps data on employment, doesn't track lactation consultants. But it does provide information on nurses, and their job prospects are likely to be excellent over the next several years. Between 2010 and 2020 the field is expected to grow by 26 percent, faster than the 14 percent projected across all occupations. However, it's worth noting that because lactation consulting is a relatively new practice, jobs may be scarcer than in more established nursing specialties.

Last Updated: 02/05/2012 - 3:23 PM

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