Practical Dad

What are Lactation Consultants?  A PracticalDad Primer

Bringing our first baby home was turning out to be a disaster.

Despite hospital guidance during the maternity stay, my wife had continuing difficulty nursing our new daughter.  The infant was chronically hungry from not being able to nurse properly, my wife was physically sore from the increasing milk supply, and we watched as our baby developed jaundice.  For a woman, being unable to feed her hungry baby is about as stressful and low as one can go.

What's jaundice?  It's a condition marked by a notable change in the color of the skin and eyes to a bilious yellow-orange.  It almost appears as though your newborn is becoming a traffic cone.  The red blood cells in the human body regularly breakdown into a substance called bilirubin; this is in turn normally excreted via human waste.  It's no problem for an adult, but when a newborn is having difficulty nursing, the lack of food slows the bowels and leads to an increase in the baby's bilirubin levels - hence jaundice.

I can honestly say that at 4 AM on a Sunday morning, formula cannot be had in the nation's capital region.  My male hunter-gatherer instincts were as useless as tits on a bull and the home stress levels worsened markedly.  Fortunately, our pediatrician saw us that same Sunday morning and immediately set us up for a session with a lactation consultant.  As a corporate rat, consultants ranked on my need-to-know list somewhere between a sales rep and a pretzel vendor so I was going solely on faith in the doctor.  And during that interim day, we gave our first-born formula.

I'll never doubt a pediatrician again.

As we drove to the appointment in the region's outer limits, I envisioned a trip to the greater DC area's sole ashram, ensconced near an orchard nestled on an organic granola farm.  And when the directions terminated in a neighborhood way better than my own, I began to realize the depth of my misconception.

The lactation consultant was a pleasant middle-aged woman who worked out of an office in her basement.  The result, inside of two hours, was a newly fed infant and a spouse who was no longer in pain and stress mode.  Better nursing techniques were taught and new Mom was on the road to becoming a pro.  I don't recall if insurance paid for the visit,  but it didn't matter as that bill was as worthwhile as an ER visit for an amputated limb.

So What is a Lactation Consultant?

These folks are expert in teaching women how to nurse and helping correct any difficulties that might arise in nursing your child.  And just like a person can work as an accountant while preparing for their CPA exam, a lactation consultant can be working while they prepare for their own board certification, IBCLC (International Board Certified Lactation Consultant).  The course work includes medical background courses such as anatomy/physiology, child development and nutrition, followed by an additional 45 hours of specific lactation education.  To top it off, they have to have documented a minimum of 900 hours counseling before they can even sit for their exams.

If you don't meet a lactation consultant at prenatal classes, you - and certainly your mate if you're not there - will meet one during the maternity stay.

Why Will They Matter to You?

Realize something first.  The medical research shows that there are much greater benefits from nursing, so much so that the CDC hs made it a goal to have 75% of all mothers nurse, at least initially.  Impressive, but the numbers haven't always been so good.

My father would share Western Pennsylvania Depression stories, and one of them involved going to town to shop and seeing the long benches outside the local Woolworth lined with nursing mothers.  As Madison Avenue took over in the 1950s, the use of formula became prevalent.  Why nurse when you can get better from a can?  Today's modern, affluent American mother can provide the best that American scientific know-how can devise for her young proteges!  Available from your friendly Safeway Grocer!  The reaction from American doctors of the period, as they lit up their Winstons, was that "sure, you can try to nurse, but if it doesn't work, just buy some formula and it'll be fine."

By 1971, according to the CDC, only about one quarter of American mothers nursed their babies.  The upshot is that because about two generations of American mothers didn't nurse - and more babies were born in hospitals instead of through midwives - the knowledge and guidance that would've been passed along disappeared instead.

The irony is striking.  Generations of mothers who largely stayed at home used formula while their descendants, over half of whom are working, are strongly encouraged to nurse their children instead.  And thus the need for a specialty to help replace what was lost.

And y'know, they're worth every bit the cost.

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