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Bridging Roles: How to Become a Lactation Consultant

Nurse helping new mother breast feed

Did you know the use of lactation consultants can increase rates of breastfeeding? With the support of certified lactation consultants, more parents start breastfeeding and sustain it.

A Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC) holds the most advanced certification in breastfeeding that a registered nurse can receive. Becoming a lactation consultant as an RN can open the door to new opportunities to support families and babies.

Breastfeeding for many new parents comes naturally and easily, but not for all. Mother and baby can encounter many unexpected challenges. A lactation consultant offers support and guidance for routine and complicated breastfeeding concerns.

Some nurses who feel a certain calling to this specialty should learn how to advance their careers and become lactation consultants. What exactly is an IBCLC, and how do nurses embark on this path? 

What is an IBCLC?

An IBCLC is a professional who has undergone extensive education and training and passed a knowledge exam. IBCLCs are commonly referred to as lactation consultants, and they help support parents with straightforward and complicated breastfeeding journeys. 

IBCLCs are recognized around the globe, with the U.S. alone having almost 20,000. Worldwide, there are over 37,000 IBCLCs in 134 countries. 

Who manages and administers lactation certification?

The International Board of Lactation Consultant Examiners (IBCLE) manages the training and practice of IBCLCs. It is the certifying body responsible for establishing and maintaining standards for lactation consultant certification. 

As an international credentialing organization, the IBCLE’s mission is to serve the global public health interest regarding the professional practice of lactation consulting. 

What do IBCLCs do?

Becoming a lactation consultant allows RNs to expand their practice and directly impact breastfeeding success. Certified lactation consultants (IBCLCs) work in a variety of settings, including:

  • Hospitals
  • Birth centers
  • OB clinics
  • Pediatric clinics
  • Homes
  • WIC programs
  • Public health departments
  • Milk banks
  • Community organizations

A lactation consultant educates and supports expecting and new parents regarding all aspects of breastfeeding. They offer various services tailored to each family's unique needs, including the following:

  • Education
  • Making appropriate referrals
  • Providing hands-on support
  • Providing clinical lactation assessment
  • Assessing the newborn for oral anomalies
  • Assessing the mother’s breast
  • Developing a treatment plan
  • Providing resources
  • Helping with issues such as latching, cracked nipples, and low milk supply
  • Using tools, including breast pumps, nipple shields, and supplemental nursing systems (SNSs)
  • Providing emotional support
  • Working with policymakers

An IBCLC is an expert in breastfeeding. They know everything from the science behind making milk to the feeding challenges of premature babies. Practicing evidence-based solutions and practical strategies, they strive to address breastfeeding issues effectively.

Difference between a lactation counselor and a consultant

The IBCLC isn’t the only role that supports parents who are breastfeeding. There are many different types of lactation specialists, including:

  • Certified breastfeeding counselors (CBCs) 
  • Certified lactation counselors (CLCs)
  • Lactation counselors (LCs)

With all these existing roles, the terminology can be confusing. The critical thing to know is that there is no regulation for lactation training programs. Each organization determines what to incorporate, including the number of training hours.

A lactation or breastfeeding counselor has completed lactation education but has yet to meet additional requirements to become a lactation consultant.

While each type of lactation specialist is valuable, only IBCLCs have met the IBLCE requirements, which recognize both training, experience, and the passing of a rigorous exam.

How to become a lactation consultant as an RN

There are currently three pathways to becoming a certified lactation consultant. As an RN, you’re a recognized health professional and can complete Pathway 1, according to the IBCLE. It is helpful if you work in a setting with new mothers and babies. Pathway 1 requires:

  • Education: Complete 95 hours of lactation-focused education within the last five years before applying for the exam. These hours should include five hours focused on communication skills. 
  • Clinical practice: Complete 1,000 hours of clinical lactation practice in a supervised setting within the last five years before applying for the exam. Supervised settings can include hospitals, lactation clinics, and birth centers. For example, postpartum nurses’ hours spent assisting new parents with breastfeeding in the hospital count toward your clinical hours.
  • Code of conduct: Adhere to the Code of Professional Conduct for IBCLCs.
  • Apply for the exam: The IBCLE offers the exam twice a year. You must apply for one of the two exam dates during specific windows of time to be eligible. The exam cost also depends on where you live, so it is financially accessible to anyone who qualifies. In the U.S., the fee is $660 for initial candidates. 
  • Take and pass the exam: The exam consists of 175 multiple-choice questions. Online results are available 12 weeks after the exam. You can prepare for this exam through various online review programs, including's IBCLC Certification Review Course.

Congratulations! After passing the exam, you can officially call yourself an IBCLC. 

There are two additional pathways (Pathway 2 and Pathway 3) to becoming an IBCLC. Non-nursing applicants typically follow these pathways. 


Once certified, you’re required to recertify every five years. In the U.S., recertification costs $470. Recertification ensures lactation consultants stay current with advances in lactation research and practice. You must complete the following steps: 

  • Complete basic life support education, such as’s HeartCode Basic Life Support (BLS) course and a related Neonatal Resuscitation Program (NRP).
  • Complete 250 hours of practice in lactation consulting.
  • Re-adhere to the code of professional conduct for IBCLCs.
  • Recertify by retaking the IBCLC exam or obtaining 75 hours of approved continuing education recognition points (CERPs).
  • Apply for recertification.

Finding success as an IBCLC 

Lactation consultants play a crucial role in supporting parents with breastfeeding, leading to improved health outcomes for both mother and baby. Heather Wright, ADN, RN, IBCLC, CST is a lactation consultant at South Sacramento Kaiser Permanente in northern California. 

Wright, a former labor and delivery nurse of 13 years, said she became an IBCLC because “There was never enough lactation help. I wanted to be more efficient with my care and give my patients the best breastfeeding experience they could get while in the hospital,” she said.

After completing her training and passing the IBCLC exam, Wright has worked as a full-time IBCLC in the hospital for the last seven years. She continues to see a shortage of RN IBCLCs as well as a noted lack of diversity

Wright, who has also worked as a postpartum nurse for 16 years, said that being an RN and IBCLC allows nurses to see the bigger picture with both the mother and baby. “The RN/IBCLC is better able to pick up on medical complications that could be impacting breastfeeding,” she said.

As a nurse, Wright feels better equipped to coordinate different modalities, such as pediatrics, speech pathologists, and physical therapists, to assist with breastfeeding difficulties. 

 “IBCLCs help to empower families to become competent and confident in breastfeeding,” said Wright. “We help not only with breastfeeding but all things feeding.”

Becoming an IBCLC offers RNs a rewarding opportunity to support families during one of their most precious and vulnerable times. Through their expertise and compassion, they are pivotal in empowering parents and ensuring the best possible start for newborns. 

Whether you're actively seeking a new role or assessing your next steps, explore's talent marketplace to help match your experience and skills to the best-fitting role.