Basics of Breastfeeding Support

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In my work as a postpartum doula, I hear new moms talk quite a lot about how much they want to breastfeed as long as possible. And yet, every day I hear new moms skeptically share advice they've been given by family members, friends, and sometimes even from staff at their hospital. 

For this reason, I've put together a series of blog posts that offer basic information about breast milk, breastfeeding, and breastfeeding support. If you'd like to see something added to this series, please send me an email or leave me a comment, and we'll try to make sure that the information and support available to moms like you who want to breastfeed will actually help you meet your goals!

Do I need breastfeeding help?

I mentioned in my previous blog about the Basics of Breastfeeding that the majority of babies seem to latch instinctively, and that sucking comes naturally! I mean, of course that makes sense, since that’s what’s required to eat and eating means survival, right? And yet… many new mothers and babies struggle to figure out how to actually do this thing comfortably. And probably, so will you!

Just because breastfeeding is supposed to be natural or instinctual does not mean it is easy or pain-free, but it can be! And you can learn the useful techniques that will get you to pain-free, worry-free, EASY breastfeeding! The important question is not, “will I figure this out?” but instead, “who should I talk to for help?”

Usually, I recommend you get familiar with the breastfeeding counselors, lactation specialists, educators, consultants, and IBCLCs in your area, but this blog will attempt to clear up the confusion about what the difference between these various support people means in terms of the kind of help you can expect. Sometimes you just need some validation and encouragement that everything looks right, and you are doing well. Other times, skilled training and expertise is necessary to correct serious and painful struggles. Read on to learn more!

Volunteer and Lay help

When you are just starting out as a new mom, you may get all the support you need to get through the earliest weeks from other moms who have personal breastfeeding experience, but no special training. You might talk to your own mom, or sister, or a close friend who’s had a baby. In fact, this is likely how most women through the ages figured out how to feed their babies!

If you are looking for support that’s a little more structured, a great organization to reach out to is La Leche League. There are local chapters run by volunteers who are mothers passionate about breastfeeding in nearly every town and city in the United States, and local chapters are present in 89 different countries! The main aim of LLL is to offer mother-to-mother support, encouragement, and information about breastfeeding. It might be possible to visit a breastfeeding support group hosted by a LLL volunteer, or perhaps a local leader can visit you at your home. If you’re not sure whether something in your breastfeeding experience is normal or needs professional help, it’s worth reaching out to a helpful, experienced volunteer for another take on the matter.

Certified and experienced breastfeeding support

There are a number of certifying bodies offering training in lactation support. Most birth doulas and postpartum doulas receive some training or education about breastfeeding, and how to support new moms in their breastfeeding goals. While my own doula training certainly included a section about breastfeeding, I often think about adding another, more specialized breastfeeding certification to my toolkit in order to better serve new mothers I meet.

Through the doula organization Childbirth International (CBI), this specialized certification is called Certified Breastfeeding Counselor (CBC). Another organization, Childbirth and Postpartum Professionals Association (CAPPA), offers a program that leads to work as Certified Lactation Educator (CLE). Other certifications may lead to Certified Lactation Counselor (CLC) work. Each training organization has different requirements leading to certification, from the number of hours supporting clients to the completion of academic assignments or readings and reflections.

Whether a trained and certified support person in your area is a lactation counselor, breastfeeding educator, or holds some other specialized certification, you can usually trust that they are a knowledgeable, passionate, and caring person. The training involved in certification provides a solid base of knowledge, and the passion that fuels such a person likely means they spend quite a bit of time meeting with new parents and their babies, and also with other lactation support people in order to hone their skills and share their experiences.

Specialized breastfeeding support

The most specialized support available for your breastfeeding relationship is that of an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC). Certification requirements are fairly rigorous with several educational and clinical components leading to qualification to sit the certifying exam. Since the certification includes at least 300 hours of supervised clinical care with new mothers and their infants, the majority of IBCLCs tend to train and eventually work in hospitals or clinics.

An IBCLC is invaluable when you find yourself really struggling and suffering in your efforts to breastfeed. A professional, well-trained, experienced doula or breastfeeding counselor can offer you good general support and valuable breastfeeding information, but should not offer a diagnosis or treatment for any medical condition; it is simply outside the scope of practice for doulas without medical training. An IBCLC, however, is fully qualified to offer medical breastfeeding advice and treatment for you and your baby.

Now, while it may be tempting to examine and compare the training requirements so that you can find the most qualified support at each level, it may be more important that the person who supports you through your breastfeeding journey is someone who listens to you, who seems to understand your goals, and who encourages you in each appointment. The training particulars will make little difference if the breastfeeding support person you meet seems to have their own agenda, minimizes your concerns, or just doesn’t seem to be listening to you. In this situation, a warm, supportive relationship is essential!

What about my OB/Midwife/Pediatrician?

If you have a warm, supportive relationship with your OB or midwife, or you really like your baby’s pediatrician, you should certainly share your struggles and successes with these doctors. They may have a new perspective or some helpful insight to share. It is rare, however, that these particular doctors receive more than the minimal training in lactation or breastfeeding support, though they may have a fair bit of experience with new mothers. In most cases, they will refer you to an IBCLC if you need more specialized care.

Licensed Chiropractors, Craniosacral Therapists, Physical Therapists and Massage Therapists

Finally, in my birth professional community, I frequently hear of doulas recommending and postpartum clients requesting the postpartum support of bodywork therapists who work especially with pregnant and postpartum women. New moms may find that treatment from a chiropractor or licensed massage therapist relieves a great deal of pain or tension in the neck, shoulders, and back from breastfeeding. New moms also often report that their infants who favor one breast, or seem to struggle with tension or limited movement respond positively after a minor treatment with a craniosacral therapist or a chiropractor who specializes in such treatments.

Depending on your interest and familiarity with these kinds of treatments, it might be worth exploring what is available to you and your family in your area as you work to smooth out your breastfeeding journey.

Support makes the difference!

You and your baby may not need specialist help with feeding at all, but there are likely well-trained and experienced breastfeeding support people in your area who can help you get started or work through a bump or two in the road. There are even lactation support people who work remotely with video chats! Of course, Facebook and the rest of the Internet is filled with people who are happy to share endless breastfeeding advice, suggestions, and experiences but when you need solid, evidence-based information and some personal attention, you’ll find it with the resources listed above. And as in most things, keep reaching out if you’re continuing to struggle! There is probably a solution to the issue you’re facing - you just have to find the right person!

For a handy breastfeeding basics reference, grab my Postpartum Survival Handbook! It includes a short breastfeeding how-to, among other self-care, childbirth recovery, newborn care, and baby sleep section. And when you’re ready for more in-depth information, sign up for my online postpartum prep and newborn care workshop, Ready for Baby! It starts the first Monday of every month and runs for four weeks. You’ll get a solid understanding of what to expect in the earliest weeks with your baby and your new postpartum body, and we’ll have weekly video chats to talk about the material and your expectations and experiences! Sign up here and I’ll send you the registration details!