I’m a lactation consultant, but I started out as a mom.
I became a mom before I knew what a lactation consultant really was or what they did, before I knew about the Mommy Wars, the shaming of breastfeeding moms, and the shaming of formula-feeding moms.
I just wanted to breastfeed my son, and it was damn hard. He wouldn’t latch. Every time I put my breast near his mouth, he turned his nose up and looked away like I was offering him something spoiled. I was devastated. I felt like a failure. I felt disconnected from my body and my baby.
All I wanted was to breastfeed him—not because I “should” or because it was “the best thing” for him. There was no philosophy behind it. It just felt right. It was just something I knew I always wanted to do.
The morning after he was born, the lovely doulas who attended his birth came to help me. They held my son’s squirmy body, then gently guided my breast into his mouth. They had just the right blend of kindness and resourcefulness. They stayed with me until I could do it myself, though it took a few weeks before latching became second nature for my son and me.
As they were leaving, I asked if they were lactation consultants. “No,” they replied. “You need like 2,000 hours of boobs to do that.”
They were right. When I started my journey to become a lactation consultant, I had to accrue 2,000 hours of one-on-one contact with breastfeeding moms. I had to take college-level coursework in the sciences and complete breastfeeding-specific coursework. Becoming a lactation consultant wasn’t easy, but like breastfeeding my son, it was something I felt called to do.
A few years into this work—and especially as more moms are connecting with each other on the internet—I see that getting breastfeeding help is not always as positive for moms as it was for me. Some mothers have felt “forced to breastfeed” by their lactation consultants. They have felt misunderstood and their words gone unheard. The biggest critique I hear is that some women have felt shamed when they stopped breastfeeding for whatever reason.
As is the case in any profession, there are always some individuals who don’t do their job with as much kindness or care as they should. But I think this is the exception rather than the rule when it comes to lactation consultants. It’s also important to note that not everyone who gives breastfeeding help is a lactation consultant. There are many tiers of breastfeeding supporters—from breastfeeding volunteers, to lactation counselors (some of whom have taken a weekend course to earn their titles). Lactation professionals who hold the initials “IBCLC” after their titles are board-certified lactation consultants—the ones who had to complete all that training and all those thousands of hours of boobs.
In fact, there are a lot of misconceptions out there about us lactation consultants, what we do, and how we view the moms we help. I’m here to clear a few of those up.
1. We don’t hate formula.
Of course we believe in the health benefits of breastmilk, but for mothers who can’t produce enough milk and who aren’t able to supplement with donated breastmilk, we think formula is a very acceptable substitute. When I encounter an underweight baby, all I want is for it to be fed. I have happily fed a baby a bottle of formula while counseling a mother on ways to increase her milk supply.
2. We know that not every mom can produce enough milk for her baby.
More than anyone else, we know what can go wrong with milk production. We know that some babies have trouble extracting milk from breasts, and we know that some moms are born with physical differences that make it very hard to produce a full supply of milk. We don’t judge these moms: We only want to help them produce as much milk they can, if that’s something they want to pursue.
3. We lose sleep over your challenges, and we want to dance in the street when things go right for you.
I know it sounds cliché, but we care. We really do. I think about my clients all the time. I know how important breastfeeding can be for mothers, and I want it to work out as much as they do.
4. We know that some moms choose not to breastfeed for very personal reasons, and that it is not our place to judge them.
Women who are victims of sexual abuse, women who are taking medication that is incompatible with breastfeeding (most medications are compatible with breastfeeding, but some aren’t), and women who just don’t like breastfeeding for whatever reason, we are not here to judge you. You don’t need to tell us why. You just do what works for you.
5. We want to empower you to make informed decisions about how to feed your baby.
Some women quit breastfeeding simply because they didn’t have the information to make it through. We want to give you all the information we can, tailored to your specific breastfeeding challenge. It’s your decision whether or not to take our advice, but without accurate information about breastfeeding, you don’t get to make an informed decision about whether or not to do it. We want to give you that power.
6. We have seen a lot of boobs, a lot of babies, a lot of bleeding nipples, and lot of poopy diapers.
No need to be modest around us! But we understand if you prefer modesty for any reason.
7. We want you to meet your breastfeeding goals, whatever they are.
Want to breastfeed exclusively? Want to give a bottle of formula once a day? Want to breastfeed for three months? Three years? We support you in whatever your goals are. It’s your body, your baby, and your decision.
The lactation consultants I know—and those I have mentored with over the years—often started out as I did: mothers who simply wanted to breastfeed their babies and encountered challenges along the way. These are mothers who wanted to give all moms a fighting chance at breastfeeding, who wanted to learn everything they could about boobs so that they could help all kinds of moms with all kinds concerns, from the simplest to the most complex.
Most of all, we lactation consultants want to meet mothers where they are, helping them meet their own breastfeeding goals, armed with good information, and most of all, with compassion and love.