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How to Choose—and Use—a Lactation Consultant

If you're able to weed through all the information and opinions and finally decide whether you're going to breastfeed your baby, then comes the hard part—learning how to do it. Enter the lactation consultant. Alissa Gomez-Dean, certified lactation consultant with Breastfeeding USA and mother of three, says there are three types of consultants, who range from international board certified lactation consultants (IBCLC), who have the most training and are considered experts; to middle range certified lactation consultants; to volunteers/mothers who don't have accreditation, but who have "been there, done that." Gomez-Dean answers common questions she hears from breastfeeding mothers:

Why should I choose a lactation consultant?

In the past, women simply relied on advice and support from friends and relatives, but if they didn't know someone who breastfed, they were stuck. Lactation consultants have increased in popularity because women can turn to certified experts for advice if they have no other support system.

"Breastfeeding can be hard, especially if you have nobody to ask questions to or turn to for support. It can be scary when you don't know if you are 'doing it right.' Consultants are there to answer questions, identify issues, such as tongue ties or latching problems, and come up with solutions with the mother as well as reassure mothers when they worry about things, such as low supply or if baby is getting enough. They can also help mothers with issues, such as pumping and returning to work, preemie babies, relactating or using supplemental nursing systems (sns)," Gomez-Dean says.

Is this service only for new mothers or can veteran mothers benefit, too?

Gomez-Dean says every breastfeeding relationship is different, and even mothers who have previously breastfed are still likely to have questions. In the end, it's nice to have someone knowledgeable to turn to, should the need arise.

If I've had a negative experience with breastfeeding, will a consultant be able to address my concerns?

Absolutely! That's where the support part comes in. Many moms struggle with lack of support or have other negative experiences with breastfeeding prior children, but they still want to try with future children. These mothers will benefit the most from talking to someone before their baby is born so the issues can be addressed early. Close communication and positive interaction after birth is also important.

How do I find a lactation consultant in my area?

Gomez-Dean says your OB or your hospital may suggest some resources. If not, you can search Breastfeeding USA's "Find a Breastfeeding Counselor" or the La Leche League website. Depending on your locale, you may find many options or only a few. Check for certification or accreditation. Many hospitals advertise lactation consultants who are really nurses who took a half-day class. Without certification, anyone can be called a lactation consultant.

What services will a consultant offer me—before and after birth?

Before birth, a consultant can help give you an idea of what the overall process will be like. She can also help identify any apprehensive feelings you may be having and provide support.

Right after birth, consultants help with feeding positions, finding a correct latch and nursing on demand.

"Immediately after birth is probably when a consultant is most helpful; breastfeeding can be difficult the first few days, weeks, even months. It takes dedication and trust in your body. Many mothers have serious questions; others just need some encouragement. A consultant is there to answer those questions and reassure the mother that they are doing things right. They can also reassure them that some of the startling behaviors of their newborn, such as seeming to want to nurse or be held constantly are also normal."

Later on, a consultant will be able to identify problems that might need to be addressed by a physician. She can be available to answer questions about issues that arise, such as thrush, mastitis, clogged ducts, returning to work, nursing in public or handling negative comments from family members.

What if I'm not comfortable with the idea of breastfeeding, can a consultant help?

"If you are not comfortable with the idea of breastfeeding, seeking out a consultant may be a very good idea! Most often, women feel uncomfortable because of our modern culture that has hidden it from view. They don't know other mothers who have breastfed. Another big issue is that many women have only seen and thought of breasts as sexual objects. It is hard to see them out of that capacity when, from childhood, women have seen ads, movies, etc. showing them in a sexual manner. Discovering the real, amazing power of breasts, and therefore women, is empowering!" Gomez-Dean says.

How will I know how to choose the right consultant for me?

Gomez-Dean says the only way to really know if you've found the right consultant is to talk to a variety of people. Interview possible supports, just like you would for any other job. It will be hard to take advice and help offered from someone who you don't feel comfortable talking to!

"A consultant should be educated and not afraid to tell you the facts without being wishy-washy, but also accepting and nonjudgmental, or forceful in her delivery," Gomez-Dean says.

Does a consultant provide medical help or medicine, or is should that be given separately?

A consultant cannot prescribe medicine, unless she is a doctor, but they can be helpful in suggesting if a doctor's help is needed. Certified consultants are also able to suggest galactagouges, which are supplements the mother takes to promote milk production. Some common ones are fenugreek, blessed thistle, oatmeal and Brewer's yeast.

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