A lactation educator or lactation counselor works with women, helping them learn about the best practices for breastfeeding their infants. People who become a lactation educator are not required to be in the medical profession. Instead, they may come from any walk of life but have a deep interest in helping women breastfeed their children. This is an entry-level position, so practitioners almost always work in situations where medical intervention during breastfeeding is not required. A lactation educator may work with pregnant and lactating women in a classroom environment, commercial setting or through an agency or medical facility that serves women and children.
In the United States, the federally funded program Women, Infants and Children (WIC) frequently employs lactation educators. Their role is to promote breastfeeding through educating and supporting women in the program. They may present group classes about breastfeeding for women before and after giving birth. As part of their nutritional program, WIC and their lactation educators advocate breastfeeding exclusively for the first six months of a baby’s life. Supporting women by encouraging them to discuss their intention to breastfeed with their doctor is another duty of a lactation educator.
Many businesses that sell breast pumps and clothing for nursing mothers also employ lactation educators. In addition, some lactation educators have their own businesses selling or renting breast pumps and educating working mothers who want to continue providing their babies with breast milk after they return to work. Most employment for lactation educators is part-time, whether it is through an agency, in a private practice or though a medical center. As such, they are generally paid an hourly rate rather than a salary.
Varying terminology is used for different levels of lactation education providers. Becoming a lactation specialist requires the least amount of coursework. Those already in the health care profession caring for women and newborns often take this coursework, adding an additional area to their career expertise. The terms lactation educator, lactation educator counselor and lactation counselor generally all refer to the same level of education, with the terminology varying according to the university or program the coursework is offered by. Lactation counselors have the highest level of education and clinical experience in lactation training.
The requirements of becoming a lactation educator vary depending on the student’s educational background and the program the student is considering. Most lactation educators take the basic coursework for lactation education and may later continue their education to become a certified lactation consultant. In addition to taking coursework centered on lactation education, college courses in human anatomy and physiology, child development and other areas are generally required for consultants. Clinical hours, working under the supervision of a health care professional, are also a requirement for lactation consultants and educators.