I probably hadn’t thought deeply or strongly about breastfeeding before I started my midwifery training. I breastfed my own children years before, it felt the natural thing to do and I didn’t plan to limit it. I don’t remember having help with positioning or latching, I just sort of figured it out myself and I was happy feeding in front of friends and family or out and about. I don’t remember any uncomfortable comments about breastfeeding. I introduced formula after a couple of months at the suggestion of healthcare providers because it seemed my milk was ‘running out’. And gradually I bottle fed more and breastfed less. Looking back I see just how little I knew about breastfeeding - and how little my caregivers understood about it too.
Now I know about growth spurts and developmental leaps and how a baby fussing at the breast doesn't mean that the milk is running out, just that baby is cleverly increasing the supply. I also know how giving formula can interfere with this process, this dance between mother and baby, and how it can lead to a reduction in the mother's supply. When I had my babies I didn't know this. Neither did my caregivers apparently.
Even before my midwifery training I was interested in the emotional journey of pregnancy, birth and parenting and, when I trained, I felt privileged to walk alongside families for this exciting, yet sometimes scary, adventure.
Early in my training I began to really appreciate how much of an impact feeding the new baby had on the well-being of the whole family. I also seemed to have an eye for seeing just what small adjustments would help to make things comfortable for both mother and baby. I was often able to help new mothers on the postnatal ward with their early feeds and felt that this enabled them to get more rest and feel more confident. As I qualified and continued through my midwifery career I developed further skills and, because of my interest in the subject, I attended study days and read widely in my own time to supplement the standard midwifery education around breastfeeding and lactation.
Training as an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant was something I aspired to but it’s a big investment of time and money so it had to wait until my student loan was paid off. Just as that happened I was offered the opportunity to cover the Infant Feeding Lead role for my colleague’s maternity leave - plus some time & support to train as an IBCLC. I chose to do a very specific specialist course, designed and taught by Deborah Robertson, which covers all the hours and subjects required before you can even apply for the IBCLC exam. There are other ways to gain these education hours but I’m very glad I did it this way, I’m still in touch with many of the women I trained with and we all got a lot of support within the group. I really enjoyed being able to offer specialist breastfeeding services in the NHS as well as helping my colleagues to support women with the day-to-day challenges of learning to breastfeed and life with a new baby. Part of the role also included teaching, both formally and informally, which is something I really enjoy.
I currently work in private practice and the families who engage me are very diverse - I’m often awed and inspired by their journeys and determination. Whether clients take an antenatal class with me, arrange postnatal care while they are pregnant, or seek my help after baby has arrived I feel privileged daily to be invited to share their journey.
Many postnatal clients call me when their babies are still young, maybe they have lost significant weight and are struggling to make breastfeeding work, maybe the mother’s nipples are very sore and nothing she’s tried so far has helped. These families often see me in addition to the NHS services they have access to because I can offer unhurried appointments in their own home. I am able to sit with them for an entire feed on both breasts and I work in a way that helps them feel confident about replicating the latch when I’m not there. For many families one early visit is enough to get things back on track and we keep in touch for a couple of weeks to make sure they are happy and getting the hang of things on their own. For others more visits are helpful as they learn new skills and breastfeeding becomes established.
One of the very beautiful things about working as an IBCLC is that, in addition to the newborn mother/baby dyads that I am used to dealing with as a midwife, families also contact me for support later on in their feeding journeys. I regularly see families with babies who are three or four months old - sometimes the abundant supply that many women have at the start of their breastfeeding journey has settled and issues such as slow weight gain indicate the latch isn’t quite effective enough (leading to poor milk transfer and affecting the supply).
Sometimes women have bravely struggled on for weeks with discomfort or pain and have just become aware that additional help is available. Occasionally I support families whose babies haven’t fed at the breast at all but are having pumped breast milk and their mum would like to try and establish breastfeeding. I also see families with much older babies too, maybe after an event such as a hospital admission that’s interrupted their journey and they want to get breastfeeding back on track.
The wonderful thing is that humans are very resilient - truly amazing - with some work most difficulties can be overcome if we understand how the physiology of breastfeeding works. If the issues can’t be overcome I work with the families to find the best solution for them.
Occasionally I’m contacted by people who want to induce lactation or to relactate, maybe to feed an adopted baby or to resume breastfeeding after a break. This is a very interesting area and does require commitment but is possible - just another way in which human bodies are so cool!
I also help people who are going back to work and want to continue breastfeeding; women who have reached the end of their journey and want to stop breastfeeding safely and comfortably; families struggling with a reflux diagnosis; people who have developed a true oversupply; babies with allergies; families that are combi feeding, or exclusively pumping - lots of different scenarios!
For most families I work with their goal is to breastfeed, and most are able to do this, but there are a small number of women that just aren’t able to make enough milk to meet all of their baby’s needs - the great news for these people is that nursing your baby at the breast is beneficial even if they need supplementing alongside that. I help families work out how they want to do this - whether they are going to seek donor milk or use formula, whether they want to supplement at the breast or use a cup or bottle for example - and support them until they are established.
My work is varied and always interesting. In addition to my private work I also help to facilitate a birth circle within a local parenting group where families can access antenatal information and breastfeeding support - this is often a great way of myth busting so many assumptions that our society has around birth and breastfeeding.
In all areas of my work, I support clients to find the right path for them. I have information, skills and knowledge that is useful to them but they are always the experts in their own lives and I seek to encourage confidence in their skills and decision making processes - this is so important as an IBCLC because parenting is hard work and it’s easy for new parents to feel they aren’t doing a good job when for the most part they are absolutely amazing!
If you are looking for expert, kind breastfeeding support in the South Wales or North Somerset areas please do get in touch.
If you are looking for support elsewhere this directory may help: https://www.lcgb.org/find-an-ibclc/
If you're interested in training as a lactation consultant there's more information here: https://www.lcgb.org/pathway-1/ and Deborah's course, which I highly recommend is here: http://www.breastfeedingspecialist.com/