The postpartum period is a pivotal period for new families: what happens in the weeks and months following birth sets the stage for the future of both parent and child. Among the many specialty care providers who assist during this time, Lactation Consultants (LCs) play an important role in improving the experience and driving results for families who choose to breastfeed. Successful breastfeeding is linked to better mental and physical health outcomes for both the child and breastfeeding parent, including reduced risk for asthma, obesity, and cancer. 

What does a Lactation Consultant do?

Making the decision to breastfeed can be a difficult decision for many mothers. Whether they should, for how long, and whether they’re capable of doing so, can be tinged with intense emotionality. According to a 2020 Italian study, 80% of participants reported some form of difficulties while breastfeeding, ranging from the complexity of breastfeeding, to pain, and even failure. Indeed, 86% reported a different experience than expected, speaking to a larger issue: that breastfeeding, and its physical and emotional challenges, is not explored enough in the standard hospital-based maternity experience.

Lactation consultants are care providers who are specially trained and educated in the clinical practice of breastfeeding. “Lactation Consultants work with a new parent to determine what their breastfeeding goals are, and then we educate, support, and help them get there,” says Kathy Parkes, MSN-ED, BSPsy, RN, IBCLC, RLC, FILCA. “We provide information so parents can make informed decisions, and we can provide support for whatever that decision is.”

There are several different titles of providers that can assist with lactation. International Board Certified Lactation Consultants (IBCLCs) and Certified Lactation Consultants (CLCs) require 90 and 45 hours of breastfeeding education respectively, and often undergo continuing education to stay abreast of new advancements and recommendations. IBCLCs are required to accrue a minimum of 1,000 hours of hands-on care before achieving their status. Comparatively, breastfeeding consultants, lactation educators, and lactation specialists undergo varying amounts of training, but with less clinically focused education.

Why are Lactation Consultants important to the parenting journey?

The World Health Organization recommends exclusive breastfeeding for six months, and continued breastfeeding with solid food for at least two years. However, research suggests that 60% of breastfeeding parents cease lactation earlier than desired, whether it’s because they’re experiencing pain during lactation, they fear negative outcomes for their or their baby’s health, or they don’t have a comfortable place to breastfeed after returning to work. There are also significant disparities in breastfeeding rates for people of color:

  • African American mothers are 2.5 times less likely to breastfeed than white women.
  • Hispanic mothers (33%) are slightly more likely than other racial/ethnic groups to provide formula supplementation as early as two days of life.
  • There is evidence for significant variation in breastfeeding practices among ethnic subgroups of Hispanic women.

Similarly, according to a 2001 study, “major barriers to breastfeeding reported by low-income minority women include lack of social, work, and cultural acceptance/support, language and literacy barriers, lack of maternal access to information that promotes and supports breastfeeding, acculturation, and lifestyle choices.”

IBCLCs in postpartum settings can improve breastfeeding outcomes across the board, which can contribute to improved breastfeeding initiation and intensity. By providing advice, support, and educational resources that are vetted and verified, LCs can execute early interventions for issues like pain, mastitis, and inflammation before they get worse. The biggest difference between a LC and other healthcare providers is, according to Parkes, “they will ask the right questions. Lactation management is not necessarily a skill that’s a part of the Physician or Nurse Practitioner education.” 

Continuous, non-judgmental support throughout the journey

Often, while a new parent is staying at the hospital after giving birth, they’ll be visited by a LC, Breastfeeding Instructor, or another care provider, to provide brief instructions and to check how the baby is latching. However, these consultations are rarely comprehensive, and are typically the only experience a new parent has with lactation education through the traditional maternity journey. “This sets the expectation and could leave a tainted view of lactation management that’s then carried forth for the rest of the time they’re breastfeeding, preventing parents in need of help from reaching out to an IBCLC again,” says Parkes.

Incorporating LCs into postpartum support programs can provide continuous support for an integral facet of raising a child, provided the parent is capable of and willing to breastfeed. Breastfeeding interventions using LCs and counselors increase the number of women initiating breastfeeding and improve breastfeeding rates.

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The biggest difference between a LC and other healthcare providers is, according to Parkes, “they will ask the right questions. Lactation management is not necessarily a skill that’s a part of the Physician or Nurse Practitioner education.” 

Improving access to Lactation Consultants and Counselors

Although IBCLCs have demonstrable clinical value to families that choose to breastfeed, they are neither part of the traditional maternity journey, nor is their involvement in care plans ubiquitous. Like other specialty providers, LCs are concentrated in metropolitan areas and can be cost prohibitive to low-income families or families without insurance. 

In a similar vein, up until recently there was little to no information or guidance available for LGBTQIA+ families for breastfeeding, whether both partners choose to breastfeed or a trans parent who had undergone top surgery needs to augment their technique. LCs are in many ways at the forefront of advances in lactation research and techniques, but the lack of ubiquity and access hinders widespread usage. 

Telehealth, through solutions like Maven, is helping to expand access to LCs, especially to vulnerable populations and rural communities. “[These groups] must often rely on telehealth to speak to a LC, or they’re not getting the help they need and deserve. Every mother deserves respectful support to achieve their goals,” says Parkes. Employers and health plans alike can adopt telehealth solutions that offer patients an opportunity to speak to specialty providers like LCs throughout their journey, whether it’s just to answer a quick question or to receive detailed instructions and interventions. 

Maven offers breastfeeding support through instant access to virtual appointments with Lactation Consultants, online classes on breastfeeding, and breast milk shipping through our Maven Milk program. Maven Milk provides members with kits for pumping, as well as medical-grade shipping containers for domestic and international travel. With Maven’s support, members are able to breastfeed 44% longer.

To find out more about how Maven expands access to specialty providers to improve outcomes like breastfeeding and returning to work, contact us today.

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