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Who are the breastfeeding experts?

August 2, 2013
Mother kneeling over her breastfeeding toddler, by Mothering Touch

As it’s World Breastfeeding Week, I thought it would be a good time to give a potted ‘who’s who’ guide to breastfeeding support.

Except, that’s not quite accurate.  Because some of these people provide feeding support, too.

Formula, breastmilk, pumped milk, donated milk, mixed feeding – you name it, there are people who are ready to support you.

As always, however, you need to know the ‘right’ person for the job.  And they may not be who you think…

Disclaimer alert!  None of this is medical advice, yeah?  Talk to your own team if you are having issues… we’re all agreed that random ladies off the internet aren’t going to be able to know everyone’s individual circumstances?  All cool?  Let’s continue…

The hierarchy in your head is probably wrong

If we are honest, most of us have a mental medical hierarchy which goes something like this: Consultant is the top, Doctor/GP/Paediatrician comes next, then Midwives and Nurses, then volunteer support workers and then me as a parent/patient.

Sound familiar?

Even just a little bit?

Yep.

The problem is: when it comes to breastfeeding support – that model just doesn’t work.

Turn it upside-down

Right at the top of the ‘experts’ list?

You and your baby.

Even if you haven’t known each other in the outside world for very long, you’ll still know a lot about whether your baby is feeding happily.

Baby looks and feels fine, is filling nappies with poo and wee and you feel good?  Hurrah!

It hurts when your baby feeds, he’s floppy or your instinct says something’s ‘off’’?

Get some help.

You and your baby are the experts in your own bodies.

So who else can help you if you need some support?  Let’s have a look at some possible candidates:

Doctors/Consultants/GPs/Paediatricians

Contrary to popular belief, most Doctors don’t have much training in breastfeeding (unless they’ve done some extra study themselves).

Paediatricians, whilst being experts in sick children and babies, aren’t experts in infant feeding, either.

Lots of people fall into the trap of thinking that a ‘doctor has told me xxx, so it must be what we need to do’.

I’m not suggesting that you should ignore medical advice!  But it is worth asking how much breastfeeding training a practitioner has had.  And it’s possible to thank them for their suggestion and seek an alternative view from someone else if you feel you need it.

Midwives

Midwives will have had some formal training in breastfeeding as part of their initial Midwifery education.  Some of them also receive further training as their career progresses.

However, their main area of expertise is in the first few days after a baby is born.  They have to care for mothers as well as babies, and breastfeeding is not their only focus.

They won’t have any expertise in babies who are older than a few days.

Again, it’s always worth asking what their experience is, and getting extra help from elsewhere if you need it.

Health Visitors

In the UK, Health Visitors will come to see you and your baby after the Midwife has handed over care.

You would have thought that they would have a lot of feeding expertise.  But it varies.  The key thing?  Ask them about their experience and the evidence for their suggestions – and second opinions are fine!

(Do you see a theme, here?)

So if the conventional forms of support don’t work out, where else can you go?  Cue the breastfeeding volunteers!

Peer Supporters

A Peer Supporter (role may have a different name) is a mother who has breastfed her own child and volunteers with a breastfeeding support organisation to help other mothers.

She will provide encouragement and empathy, but not medical advice.

Peer Supporters can help with suggestions for common breastfeeding issues and provide a listening ear.  They can also signpost you to further sources of support if you are having a more troublesome problem.

Depending on the organisation which she volunteers with, Peer Supporters will have had about 12 weeks’ training or done a home study module.  You can always ask about their background and experience – they won’t mind.

Peer Supporters work with charities and won’t charge you for their support (donations to their charity are always welcome!)

Breastfeeding Counsellor

A Breastfeeding Counsellor (they may have another name) is a senior volunteer in the breastfeeding world.  She will have breastfed her own child and will probably have started supporting other women as a Peer Supporter.

Depending on the organisation with which she volunteers, she will have done around 2-3 years’ training.

Yep.  2-3 years.  In her own time.  To offer a service for free.

*Stops in awe for a moment*

Breastfeeding Counsellors offer non-judgemental support.  They can offer suggestions for more complicated feeding issues and also offer support and strategies for women who are formula feeding.

The Counsellor part of their title is important.  Breastfeeding Counsellors are trained to listen to you and can help you to debrief any feeding problems you had with previous babies if you wish.

If you ring a breastfeeding support line, it’s usually someone at Breastfeeding Counsellor level that you will talk with.

Breastfeeding Counsellors are volunteers and won’t charge for their services.

Problem too tricky for a Breastfeeding Counsellor?  Serious medical issue?  Step forward:

Lactation Consultant (IBCLC)

A Lactation Consultant is the lead professional in the world of infant feeding (breastfeeding and formula feeding).

In a hospital, they may sometimes be called an ‘Infant Feeding Coordinator’.

They may have been Breastfeeding Counsellors who did further training, or they may have had a more medical background such as being a former Midwife or Health Visitor.

Technically, anyone can call themselves a ‘lactation consultant’, so it’s important to check that they are ‘board certified’ (look for ‘IBCLC’ after their job title).

In some parts of the country, IBCLCs are available on the NHS.  Elsewhere, you can go to one privately.  There is a list of practitioners on the IBCLC website (see below).

Partners

Last but not least, your partner can provide loads of emotional and practical support.

Whether it’s because they pay attention to the breastfeeding stuff in the antenatal classes because you can’t stop thinking about labour, grabbing you a glass of water and making sure you are fed, or reading everything there is to know and calling for help if you need it – encouragement and belief from someone else can go a long way.

These people are all here to help you.  So don’t be shy – if you are in need of some feeding support, ask for it as early as you can.  Nobody will mind!

References and further geekery:

Analytical Armadillo – The Pyramid of Breastfeeding Support

Association of Breastfeeding Mothers – Breastfeeding Support Titles

Maddie McMahon – The Who’s Who of Breastfeeding

Milk Matters – Who’s Helping You?

NCT – How Dads Can Help to Support Breastfeeding

Sources of support:

Help! page

Association of Breastfeeding Mothers

The Breastfeeding Network

La Leche League International

NCT

The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding

IBCLC finder

As well as phone feeding helplines, the four charities above also offer drop-in groups around the country.  They can also signpost you to good books and videos for support.

There may also be other breastfeeding cafes or groups in your neighbourhood.  You can go to these at any time – even whilst you are still pregnant.  They usually have cake and biscuits, so it’s all good…

Thank you so much to Mothering Touch for the breastfeeding picture!

Have I missed anything off the list?  Got the wrong end of the stick?  Please let me know in the comments below.

You may also like: Who are the pregnancy experts?

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