When seeking help with breastfeeding, it's important to understand the meanings and qualifications associated with all of the initials and titles that various professionals and lay counselors use. There is no central authority or law regarding the use of titles or claims for breastfeeding helpers, so understanding common designations will allow nursing mothers to contact and select a qualified breastfeeding helper most closely aligned with their individual needs and philosophies. It will also ensure that mothers understand the approaches and potential limitations of that helper.
Mother-to-Mother Peer Counselors
There may be many local versions of programs which involve mother-to-mother breastfeeding support, not the least of which is an experienced breastfeeder assisting another mother. Of course, the scope of available assistance in this case is limited by the personal experiences of the helpers. There are, however, at least two programs nationally or internationally that train peer counselors – USDA's Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) and La Leche League International (LLLI or LLL).
WIC Peer Counselors are local WIC mothers who have successfully breastfed. They complete a 20-hour training course and are qualified to assist with the experience and basic challenges of a normal course of breastfeeding. Challenges or problems outside of the norm must be referred to an IBCLC (see below) or other appropriate health professional. Peer counselors may work at WIC sites, at hospitals or other appropriate locations, and sometimes make home visits. WIC peer counselors may be paid by WIC or may be volunteers. WIC peer counselors are available at no cost to WIC mothers.
LLL leaders are accredited by an internal process of the organization. There is no formal classroom instruction, but there is a quite impressive leader-to-leader training program which averages about a year in length and involves education on a wide range of breastfeeding and counseling issues. Some claim that LLL leaders are as experienced (and sometimes more experienced) than some IBCLCs. However, they are empowered only to provide information and education, often coupled with recommendations and ideas, but they *do not* provide medical advice and are not medical professionals. They are well-educated in area resources if further referrals are needed. LLL leaders hold regular meetings in their local areas and also provide phone and mother-to-mother support as needed and appropriate. Meetings and most leader services are free to mothers, although LLL membership is encouraged.
Peer counseling and support can be an incredible resource for nursing mothers, and in most cases, is free! However, there are times when professional support may be required. There are also many resources through hospitals or doctors’ offices involving breastfeeding professionals, and it is helpful to know what the designation of these helpers mean and what training they have received. For more information on breastfeeding professions, see my related article, Types of Breastfeeding Professionals.