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The Voluntary Counsellor Route Towards IBCLC Certification

IMG_2642Blog post by Caoimhe Whelan IBCLC – Updated on 03/07/19 following updates made by the IBLCE to the IBCLC certification  process.


In 2012, the International Board of Lactation Consultants Examiners (IBLCE) Board of Directors introduced new eligibility criteria for candidates wishing to sit the IBCLC exam and obtain IBCLC certification. The main rationale for this change was to enhance the quality of the IBCLC credential, and also to ensure that all exam candidates had a solid foundation in the relevant health sciences.  Around the time that the changes were introduced, there was a lot of talk about ‘barriers’ to the IBCLC profession and how it was now ‘impossible’ for voluntary breastfeeding counsellors to become IBCLCs. At this point, as a Cuidiú Breastfeeding Counsellor I hadn’t really seriously considered pursuing IBCLC accreditation, but when I heard the word ‘impossible’ I decided I’d give it lash!  I sat the exam in October 2016, officially qualified as an IBCLC in December 2016 (results are released 3 months after the exam is held) and started working in private practice in February 2017.

Initially, over a period of a few months I did some research on the various pathways open to candidates and mapped out what I thought would be my own route to obtaining the required criteria and being accepted to sit the exam. In this article I will outline the requirements for voluntary counsellors and hopefully remove some of the confusion for potential applicants.


Voluntary breastfeeding counsellors with Cuidiú and La Leche Leaders can become IBCLCs via ‘Pathway 1’, as defined by the IBLCE. They are recognised by the IBLCE as ‘breastfeeding mother support counsellors’ and as such can pursue IBCLC certification. There are three different pathways towards certification that candidates can take, depending on whether they are already HCPs, voluntary counsellors or can avail of an apprenticeship with an IBCLC who is working in at least three clinical settings (this option not possible in Ireland). But for Cuidiu BFCs and LLL leaders, Pathway 1 is the only way to go. All of these pathways are mapped out on the IBLCE website www.iblce.org.


So if you are a BFC or a LLL leader and you would like to sit the IBCLC exam, I think you should give yourself approximately 5 – 6 years (starting after you qualify), to meet the minimum requirements. Cuidiú BFCs must complete 3 years as volunteer counsellors before they can apply to sit the exam. They must also liaise with Cuidiú tutors and let them know that they intend to apply for the exam. It’s a big undertaking as a volunteer to go down this route, but if you’re prepared to commit the time, energy and money, it is possible. In my opinion studying to become an IBCLC is not an ‘add on’, rather it is career change. If you decide you want to go down this route, you should think in terms of it as being the equivalent of doing a primary degree or a masters in terms of the commitment required.


So what do you need to do?

If you are already a voluntary counsellor, you will need to

  • complete 14 health sciences courses (8 college courses equivalent to one semester length and 6 continuing education courses) as outlined in the IBCLC Health Sciences Guide (http://iblce.org/certify/eligibility-criteria/health-sciences-summary/)
  • complete 90 lactation-specific education hours plus 5 hours of education focused on communication skills
  • obtain 1000 contact or counselling hours with breastfeeding mothers. Please note: In June 2019 IBLCE made changes to the certification process. Whereas previously voluntary counsellor candidates were awarded a flat rate of 500 hours per year of service, they must now log 1000 hours.


  1. The required college courses are as follows:
    1. Biology (Honours Leaving Cert Biology will be accepted)
    2. Anatomy
    3. Physiology
    4. Infant and Child Growth and Development
    5. Introduction to Clinical Research (i.e. Statistics)
    6. Nutrition (Honours Leaving Cert Home Economics will be accepted)
    7. Psychology or Counselling
    8. Sociology or cultural anthropology

All of these courses can be done online through an accredited academic institution. However, you must sit a written exam. This can be done at an exam centre or as an online proctored exam. The Open College (http://www.theopencollege.com/) offers many courses which would meet the above criteria eg Human Growth and Development, Anatomy and Physiology, Nutrition, Sociology and Psychology. But there are many other institutions through which you can do courses. It’s  just a matter of deciding what is going to suit you.

Personally, I found the Fetac level 5 courses, which I did through The Open College very good as they present information in an Irish context, which is useful. And they are standalone qualifications which, if you decide not to pursue the IBCLC qualification, could be used towards something else. The courses are 3 months long, after which time you are required to sit an exam at a nominated Open College exam centre. Each course I did took me approximately 5-6 months as the exams are scheduled a month or two after you submit your assignments and complete the course. I didn’t find these courses particularly challenging but I did find them interesting and feel that all I learned doing them was relevant information for both the IBCLC exam. They also helped me feel much more confident about my broad knowledge of the health sciences subjects. To be honest, I can’t imagine sitting the exam without having this foundation.

You can find further details about all of the above in the Health Sciences Guide on the IBLCE website.


  1. You must also complete the following 6 further education subjects – Basic Life Support, Medical Documentation, Medical Terminology, Occupational Health and Safety, Professional Ethics and Infection Control. These latter 5 subjects can be done together as a package on some of the lactation-specific education websites. For basic life support you will need to attend a one-day life support course.


  1. Complete and log 1000 supervised contact hours. These must be verified for by 2 people within your organisation. Within LLL, the hours can be verified by a Co-Leader, a District Co-Ordinator or a member of Council. Within Cuidiú, the hours can be verified by a breastfeeding tutor or a member of Breastfeeding Panel. Please note: In June 2019 IBLCE made changes to the certification process. After April 2020, flat rate hours will no longer be accepted. Candidates will be required to complete and log 1000 contact hours.


  1. Acquire 90 Lactation-specific Education Hours and 5 hours of education focused on communication skills . Eg L-CERPs from training days such as those run by ALCI. You can also get L-CERPs by doing lactation courses online. There are many packages available on the lactation education websites eg http://www.health-e-learning.com/ . The CERPs must have been obtained within the 5 years immediately before applying for the exam. I obtained my lactation-specific education hours over a 5 year period, mainly by attending ALCI and LLL conferences and study days. I think it is best to spread the hours out over at least a couple of years so that you don’t find yourself in a situation where you’re trying to cram them in prior to the cut-off date for exam application.


When you have all the above minimum requirements, you are eligible to apply to sit the IBLCE exam. 

One you’ve been accepted you can focus on studying for the exam itself – the curriculum is outlined in this document http://iblce.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/IBCLC-Detailed-Content-Outline-for-2016-for-Publication.pdf


You will probably want to do some sort of exam preparation course. There are courses available online (eg Health elearning website), but I chose to do mine with IBCLC Lorraine O’Hagan. It is a 5 day course (one Saturday a month) costing €400. You get 40 L-CERPs from this course.


Finally, before deciding on taking the pathway 1 route to IBCLC certification, you need to give some consideration to the costs involved and to job opportunities and potential earnings once you are qualified. At the moment, there are really no job opportunities for IBCLCs who come from a volunteer background other than to work in private practice. So do give some thought to how you feel about being self-employed and to how much you think you might be able to earn in private practice. A lot will depend on where in the country you live – eg potential earnings are probably a lot higher in urban areas compared to rural areas.

I’ve outlined below what I estimate I spent over the last few years:

College courses and exam fees with The Open College €1600

Sociology Course €140

Statistics Course €140

CERPs – hard to estimate but over the years maybe €700 (approximate cost for online CERPs is €10 per CERP)

6 further education subjects €150

Exam Revision Course €400

Health E-Learning Exam Practice €90

One day basic life support course €150

Books €200 (recommended books include Breastfeeding and Human Lactation, Core Curriculum for the Lactation Consultant, The Breastfeeding Atlas, Counselling the Nursing Mother and The Comprehensive Lactation Consultant Exam Review).

The exam application fee is $660 (€585 when I paid in April), and I plan to spend another €100 or so on books.

So total cost approximately €4,235.

This is just an estimate of total cost to me going this route but it may not necessarily cost this much. I was lucky enough to receive a €250 exam scholarship from ALCI so do consider applying for this when you know when you will sit the exam.


Finally, a quote from Goethe which I have hanging in the downstairs bathroom to inspire me when I have moments of doubt:

“Until one if committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favour all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would have come his way. Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it now. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now.”


More information is available on the IBLCE website www.iblce.org.

Further Reading


Presenting at the ILCA 2023 In-person Conference in Las Vegas:  A Personal Account


ILCA 2023 Conference Presentation: Building Policy Coalitions


WHO/Unicef Congress