Nichelle Clark was unable to breastfeed – a difficult path made even more difficult by the fact that she was studying to become a lactation consultant at the time.
The 35-year-old from Chesapeake, Va., was battered by infertility treatments to conceive her son David in 2017 and following an emergency C-section she wanted physical independence.
Clark tried to breastfeed, but she had blocked milk ducts and mastitis, a breast infection. She chose to exclusively pump her breast milk.
His colleagues cracked up.
“I was studying to be an internationally board-certified lactation consultant and the comments were, ‘If you don’t breastfeed this baby, you won’t have breast milk,'” Clark told TODAY Parents. “Well, I like challenges.”
Related: 13 breastfeeding tips for new moms from a lactation consultant
Clark looked for information about exclusive pumping, but her breastfeeding support group wasn’t very supportive.
“Moms said, ‘You’re going to give up,'” she recalls. “It was a vulnerable time – I’m a US Navy veteran. I have been to war. And now you’re telling me I can’t bottle-feed? I cried a lot.”
This pressure is ever-present whether mothers are breastfeeding or not. In June, the American Academy of Pediatrics updated breastfeeding guidelines to recommend mothers breastfeed for at least two years (instead of one year) with “non-judgmental support.”
This is an official permission for mothers who breastfeed their toddlers, but have guilt some mothers formula feeding or pumping.
Related: 8 Benefits of Breastfeeding for Mom and Baby
The breastfeeding bar is raised even higher for lactation consultants who specialize in helping mothers overcome breastfeeding challenges.
“When you’ve never put your baby to the breast and you’re helping moms breastfeed, people get confused,” Clark explained.
But lactation consultants who couldn’t breastfeed aren’t that rare.
According to Diana West, a New Jersey-based lactation consultant and author of seven breastfeeding books, “many, many” lactation consultants have never breastfed a baby.
Many gravitate towards the industry specifically because they couldn’t breastfeed and for that reason want to support moms. Lactation consulting is also a natural career pivot after working in hospital labor and delivery departments.
West never considered breastfeeding because five years before her first pregnancy, she underwent breast reduction surgery. While her surgeon ruled out breastfeeding afterwards (the procedure severs the milk ducts), according to the Cleveland Clinic, some patients can, depending on the incision.
West pumped and used donated milk and hydrolyzed formula. “It was stressful,” she told TODAY Parents.
West joined La Leche League, a breastfeeding support group. She hoped to meet “intelligent and critical-thinking breastfeeding mothers”.
She was surprised by the reception. “Instead of scolding me for using formula, they praised me,” she jokes, “the breast was half full.”
A year later, West welcomed his second son. Because she had a successful breastfeeding experience with him, she applied to be a “leader,” a volunteer position that required her to have breastfed a baby for six months (today that standard is at least a year).
West felt so empowered that in 1998—as a formula-feeding mother—she co-founded the Breastfeeding After Breast and Nipple Surgeries (BFAR) support group, which exists today.
Some breastfeeding professionals believe that their struggle or inability to breastfeed has given them essential knowledge.
“It’s hard to guess myself,” West said. “It’s been a privilege to help so many people, but I wish I could have helped my son more.”
Hayley Hoffman, mother of three, agrees.
Her accomplished resume — midwife, nurse practitioner, lactation consultant, and teacher in the department of obstetrics, gynecology, and reproductive sciences at the University of Maryland — didn’t help her breastfeed.
“Breastfeeding was a shock to my system, despite everything I learned in school,” she told TODAY Parents.
Her eldest son, Jack, didn’t latch on at first. “I had delivered hundreds and hundreds of babies, but I still had no idea how intense the sleepless engorgement and a screaming baby was,” she said. “I thought, ‘I let my patients down. “”
While on maternity leave in 2017, Hoffman was motivated to become a certified lactation consultant, preparing her to start a lactation clinic inside the hospital.
Hoffman’s second child, Sadie, was born prematurely and developed meningitis, spending a month in the NICU with a feeding tube. With help, Hoffman learned to breastfeed her daughter and created a conference for NICU nurses on helping breastfeeding mothers with babies with special needs.
Then when Gabriel, now one year old, was born, he had severe lip and tongue attachments and a “horrible” latch, which was laser treated. Hoffman created a referral program with her university’s department of pediatric dentistry to train dentists in identifying and releasing infant tongue ties.
“If my children had been breastfed easily, I wouldn’t have understood the importance of individual patient care,” Hoffman said. “I wouldn’t have connected with them on a (deep) level.”
She added, “I can now walk in their place.”