I was asked to deliver a 15-minute talk at the Institute of Health Visiting and Royal Society of Public Health conference in April, entitled: The role of the infant feeding specialist. The following is a synopsis.
I started by sharing the story of a client whose journey will sound familiar to many IBCLCs – a first time mum who gave birth in a fully accredited Baby Friendly hospital, but struggled to breastfeed from the beginning. After receiving support with skin to skin, basic positioning, hand expressing and cup feeding, the mother went home exclusively pumping and supplementing with formula. She received a lot of support from midwives, health visitors and peer supporters, but by 10 weeks had still never had a successful breastfeed.
What the mother needed was specialist breastfeeding input, which she eventually found, to resolve her complex issues, and she continues to breastfeed, exclusively, to this day.
While most mothers begin breastfeeding, the sharp decline in the number of mothers still breastfeeding is staggering in the first 2-6 weeks. Many of the problems that women encounter are basic challenges which are solvable with the correct support.
The issue is not whether most health professionals are doing a good job, but whether every mother can access the level of support that she requires. That may be “basic” infant feeding training such as BFI trained midwives and health visitors; or it may be “additional” support from a network of trained peer supporters, or in some complex cases, where the basic and additional levels of care have not solved the mothers’ problems, access to “specialist” infant feeding care may be required (see below). It is an equity issue that there is not access in every area to trained specialist care for complex cases.
Basics of breastfeeding support are fundamental, and NICE guidance states that Baby Friendly Initiative (BFI) accreditation should be the basic minimum standard across all maternity and community settings in the UK.
Relevant guidance from NICE, PHE and BFI are summarised in this “Guide to the Guidance” from Better Breastfeeding, outlining three recommended levels of support:
1) Basic support: A universal service with health professionals with BFI standard training in infant feeding
2) Additional support: Social and trained peer support
3) Specialist support: access to a referral pathway to specialist support for complex cases.
The recommendations from the WBTi report and BFI both agree that for some mothers, access to specialist breastfeeding support should be available and readily accessible.
While most mothers only require routine care, with the adjunct of drop in groups, peer support and telephone helplines, some mothers will require a more thorough and specialised level of care in order to overcome their breastfeeding challenge and continue to breastfeed for as long as they wanted to.
The problem is how that service is provided. The BFI provide guidelines on the person specification of the Infant feeding lead . Many of these individuals are very experienced, skilled, hard-working and dedicated. But the fact remains that there is no set of core competencies, and no requirement for the infant feeding lead to have an infant feeding qualification. This makes the skill set of the infant feeding lead a vulnerability in itself .
In many cases, the infant feeding lead is required to achieve an enormous amount, encompassing audit, training, logistical management, liaising with key partners and commissioners, as well as provide a clinical service. This role is usually undertaken on a part time basis, often supplemented with countless hours of unpaid overtime in order to fulfill the requirements of the post.
Specialist infant feeding support: a team effort
Ideally, in order to provide the best service for families, and achieve sustainability, infant feeding support should be the responsibility of a team. Appropriately trained professionals should work together to deliver a service, so that it is not the sole responsibility of one overworked individual. These teams should include medical input from paediatricians, alongside dietetic and speech and language specialist support. Health visitors, midwives, community nursery nurses, and specialist breastfeeding support from an extensively trained member of staff, such as an IBCLC or accredited breastfeeding counsellor, should also make up the team.
For women and babies with complex feeding problems, the infant feeding specialist service should be readily accessible, timely, and high quality, with a clear referral pathway as recommended by the BFI. But importantly, this service needs to seamlessly transfer families back into routine care and follow up support. This would free up the specialist service and reduce the likelihood that the other health professionals providing routine and additional care become de-skilled.
Research indicates that delayed, inaccurate and inappropriate advice can reduce maternal confidence and self-efficacy, and leads to frustration, confusion and ultimately reduces the duration and exclusivity of breastfeeding.
Specialist skills and knowledge
The value of the infant feeding specialist is that their advanced skills and training provides them with expert listening and problem-solving skills. Infant feeding specialists such as IBCLCs possess the necessary clinical skills and training to accurately assess a problem and make an individualised plan: keeping the baby fed, protecting the maternal milk supply, and ultimately tackling the underlying cause of the problem (ILCA, 2011).
Having initially trained as a paediatric nurse, and later as a health visitor, I quickly realised that to be an effective practitioner, competent and confident to take on the management of more complex breastfeeding challenges, I needed some additional training. IBCLCs are required to not only have more than 1000 clinical practice hours, but also study an extensive curriculum, to equip them to understand and support mothers and babies with a whole range of breastfeeding problems. Moreover, we are required to keep our skills and knowledge sharp by completing 15 hours of CPD in advanced lactation and ethics every year, and by resitting our exam every ten years. I have now been an IBCLC for over 7 years, and though I still feel like a ‘junior’ compared to many of my IBCLC colleagues for whom I have a great deal of respect, my training and experience has helped me to feel capable of handling both entrenched and complex breastfeeding problems, and also to be a resource for the wider healthcare team.
Faulkner and Finch’s 2016 research found that many IBCLCs already hold infant feeding lead posts, or work in the voluntary sector. Other infant feeding leads have accessed further skills and training that equips them to run a specialist service.
However, there are challenges. Firstly, many infant feeding leads are swamped with administrative and managerial tasks which detract from their clinical and educational role. Secondly, many infant leads are working in isolation, and simply do not have any cover when they are sick, take holiday or are overloaded. Thirdly, some infant feeding leads do not have enough access to advanced training to equip them to run specialist services, or do not have the time to be able to disseminate best practice to their team. Finally, many third sector services have been cut, which leads to services becoming overwhelmed, or women simply not having anywhere to turn when challenges crop up.
A successful specialist infant feeding referral service should be free, accessible, well-resourced, seamlessly linked with routine and additional care, and multi-disciplinary. Professionals should know where to access further training and be able to signpost families to quality sources of information. IBCLCs are well-placed to run these NHS services, and in many case they already are, but a greater emphasis on training of the entire infant feeding team would strengthen the approach and ultimately make the service more sustainable.
Lyndsey is an experienced Paediatric Nurse, Health Visitor, International Board Certified Lactation Consultant, Holistic Sleep Coach and Birth Trauma Recovery Practitioner, with almost 20 years experience working with infants, children and families in hospitals, clinics, and the community.
Lyndsey runs a busy practice offering one-to-one specialist breastfeeding, bottle feeding, sleep, eating, behaviour and parenting support to families in the UK and Internationally. Lyndsey is the author of Holistic Sleep Coaching and has published a number of articles in academic journals, as well as parenting magazines regarding breastfeeding, caring for premature babies and sleep issues in children. She regularly teaches health and childcare professionals, lectures as an independent speaker, and hopes to begin her PhD later this year.