This article considers the sources of breastfeeding support in the UK.
You might be surprised to hear that breastfeeding support is an unregulated area. Anyone can call themselves a breastfeeding specialist. So who’s supporting you with breastfeeding and how do you know that they have the qualifications and experience to offer skilled help?
Midwives and Health Visitors
As professionals providing health care to mothers and their babies, breastfeeding support is a fundamental element of the role of midwives and health visitors.
However, the level of training they receive in breastfeeding support can be variable. This might explain why women report very different experiences of help from their midwife or health visitor (and the maternity assistants and nursery nurses they work with).
Check to see if your local hospital or NHS community service has achieved UNICEF Baby Friendly status. If so, they have demonstrated that they provide a certain level of breastfeeding support.
When you’ve got a breastfeeding difficulty in the early days, your midwife is likely to be the first person you ask for help. If she can provide you with the practical support you need to overcome whatever challenges you are facing, that’s great. But if she can’t you will probably find it helpful to talk to someone who specialises in breastfeeding support.
Peer supporters are mums who have breastfed their own babies and completed a training course – usually of around 8 x 2 hours sessions – to help them support other mums.
The training varies from one area to another. But it often involves developing communication skills as well as knowledge of normal breastfeeding. So peer supporters offer support and encouragement as well as practical suggestions.
You might find peer supporters at your local breastfeeding drop in. Sometimes they offer support by phone or on the postnatal ward, too. What’s really valuable about this type of support is the social aspect of it. When you’re with a group of peer supporters it’s difficult not to be motivated by their enthusiasm and normalising of breastfeeding! Women have helped other women with all aspects of pregnancy, birth and parenting throughout history and across the world. So this type of support is all about bringing that to a modern society where new mums may not have family and friends who are close enough or able to help them.
However peer supporters don’t have the training to provide the help you might need to overcome complex breastfeeding difficulties. But they will probably be able to signpost you to where you can access this help.
In the UK we have four charities that train mothers who have breastfed their own babies to provide more skilled breastfeeding support. They are called Breastfeeding Counsellors (BFCs) in the NCT and Association of Breastfeeding Mothers (ABM). In La Leache League they are called Leaders and in the Breastfeeding Network (BfN) they are Breastfeeding Supporters.
The BFC training process takes around 2 years and involves developing counselling skills alongside in-depth breastfeeding knowledge. The charities also provide ongoing training and development and provide some form of supervision. BFCs are highly skilled and support women in a variety of ways that are generally free. This includes via telephone helplines, drop ins and groups. They may also run breastfeeding antenatal classes and train Peer Supporters.
Unfortunately some areas don’t have a BFC. Additionally the limitations of the voluntary role means that BFCs aren’t always able to offer the level of support that some women need.
International Board Certified Lactations Consultants (IBCLC)
These breastfeeding specialists have undertaken a large amount of training in breastfeeding alongside having significant experience of supporting breastfeeding women. They have then sat an exam which qualifies them as a Lactation Consultant. IBCLCs have to complete a significant amount of ongoing training to maintain their status as Lactation Consultants.
Most are midwives or health visitors who wanted to develop expertise in breastfeeding support. Or some are BFCs who chose to gain a credential that healthcare providers recognise. Some NHS Trusts employ IBCLCs in Infant Feeding Coordinator roles in hospital or community settings (although not all Coordinators are IBCLCs). Many IBCLCs also practice privately as this enables them to offer women the time and in-depth personalised support that can be difficult to provide in other circumstances.
Drop ins, telephone helplines and private sources of breastfeeding support
Hopefully your midwife or health visitor can provide you with details of the breastfeeding support services available locally. This usually includes drop ins and breastfeeding support groups. Alternatively a quick google will show you what’s available in your area. Or you can search on the websites of the breastfeeding charities. LCGB (Lactation Consultants of Great Britain) can provide details of local IBCLCs in private practice.
Many groups also have Facebook pages and there are a variety of national breastfeeding support pages. Additionally, the national breastfeeding support helplines are available every day. If you have a query about taking medication when breastfeeding, the Drugs in Breastfeeding service provided by the Breastfeeding Network is excellent.
You might find breastfeeding support offered by someone with a different title or credential. If it’s not one of the more well-known options considered above, you might want to ask them what training/qualifications they have and what that training involved. There are some brief online courses which anyone can sign up to, so a title in itself doesn’t mean in-depth skill. With so many sources of breastfeeding support available, it’s worth making sure you know who you’re being helped by.
Looking for an IBCLC?
If you have decided that an IBCLC Lactation Consultant is the best option for you, or you would like to find out more about it, please contact me to see how I might be able to help. I’m a Lactation Consultant and offer breastfeeding support in Worthing, Shoreham, Brighton, Littlehampton and the surrounding areas of Sussex.
Find out more by clicking on the links below or contact me if you’ve got any questions.